All About Northern White Cedar

Identification

Leaves – persistent, generally scale-like, 1/8″ long, glandular, and decussate.

Twigs – grow in a fan like pattern spreading outwards, building on previous scales.

Cones – 1/2″; erect with thin, woody scales.

Bark: – often gray/brown with some reddish undertones; fibrous; as the tree ages and the trunk widens in diameter, the bark begins to peel more aggressively and the fibrous appearance becomes more apparent.

Where it Grows. Effect on Ecosystem.

The Northern White cedar, which has a light yellow hue, is found in New England and southern Canada and can also be found in  the Midwest.

Northern white cedar grows naturally in wet forests, being particularly abundant in coniferous swamps, where other larger and faster-growing trees cannot compete successfully. It also occurs on other sites with reduced tree competition, such as cliffs. Although not currently listed as endangered, wild white cedar populations are threatened in many areas by high deer numbers; deer find the soft evergreen foliage a very attractive winter food and strip it rapidly.

Northern white cedar is an important component to the ecosystems it inhabits. Cedars often grow in thick groves and provide optimal coverage from snowfall for deer herds, snowshoe hare populations, and even porcupines. The vitamin rich twigs, shoots, and leaves are an important source of food for wildlife during long winter months.

Naturally Rot Resistant. Perfect for...

White Cedars contain natural resins and oils that make them resistant to insects, rot and decay. As a result white cedar is perfect for products that come into contact with water and soil such as fencing, house siding, decking, outdoor showers, saunas and raised garden beds. White cedars are also known for their pungent, aromatic scent, are lightweight and sustainable. Left untreated they will ultimately turn a color referred to as “Cape Cod Grey”.

Check out our White Cedar Lumber page for material options.

History

The name ‘Arborvitae’ or the ‘tree of life’ was given by the native Wabanakis and Iroquois who first inhabited the Northeastern U.S and Southeast Canada.

Thuja occidentalis (White cedar) is a tree with important uses in traditional Ojibwe culture. Honored with the name Nookomis Giizhik (Grandmother Cedar), the tree is the subject of sacred legends and is considered a gift to humanity for its myriad uses, among them crafts, construction, and medicine. It is one of the four plants of the Ojibwe medicine wheel, associated with the north.

The native people of the northeast used white cedar to treat headaches, coughs, pneumonia, colds, fever, rheumatism, sprains, bruises, and sores. The Algonquin, for instance, took a decoction of branches for rheumatism. They used a poultice of powered wood for rashes and skin irritations. The branches were used in a steam bath for fevers, colds, and toothache. They also used an infusion of cones to treat babies with colic. 

In fact, a tea prepared from Northern White Cedar twigs and bark was said to have saved the crew of explorer Jacques Cartier (seen here) from scurvy in 1536.

Why Does Northern White Cedar Seem So Elusive?

The Western red cedar is much larger than Northern White cedar and thus can provide wider board at a greater quantity which works well for national and international distribution centers and retail locations. The red cedar, which has a reddish hue, grows from southeast Alaska to northern California and east to northwestern Montana. These trees  typically grow to 120-150 feet. The tallest today are about 200 feet tall. The widest are about 19 feet in diameter. These giants are found mostly in the old-growth coastal rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island.  Some may be 1400 years old or older.

Conversely, the northern white is much smaller than the western red reaching heights of around 50 feet with trunk diameters of about 2 feet. The amount of northern white cedar that can be processed each year has a much lower ceiling than its red hued cousin. (To learn more about the similarities and differences between red and white cedar check out this article in Green and Healthy Maine Homes.)

As a result of these differences in size and scalability white cedar can prove to be hard to find but this should not be the case regionally. There is plenty of white cedar to meet the needs of homeowners and builders in the regions where white cedar is plentiful. There is no reason for a product to travel 3000 miles when a similar or superior product can be found locally.

To learn more about the differences between red and white cedar check out this article written by Lumbery owner Michael Friedland in Green and Healthy Maine Homes magazine.

How Can We Promote Local Sourcing?

We at the Lumbery are embarking on a project that is twofold in nature.

The first part includes creating a recognizable brand name that represents high quality, local and sustainably sourced products that present the buyer with 2 facts.

Fact 1: Where your wood came from/How far it travelled and

Fact 2: Where your money goes.

The second part includes educating the consumer about the environmental and social impacts of sourcing locally. 

To learn more about what we do at the Lumbery check out our About Us page or watch our webinar.