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What is a Western Red Cedar?

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  • Written By: Dee S.
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Images By: Satori, n/a, Iryna Volina
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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The western red cedar, also commonly known as the canoe cedar, the shinglewood, and the giant arborvitae, is part of the Arborvitae or Cupressaceae families of evergreen trees or shrubs. Thuja plicata, the Latin name for this tree, is the provincial tree of British Columbia, Canada. This massive cedar is native to North America, growing from the southeastern portion of Alaska to the northwestern section of California; it also grows from Alberta and British Columbia to Montana and Idaho.

Although most garden varieties of the western red cedar can reach about 50 to 100 feet (15.2 to 30.5 m) tall, there are some varieties that can reach 200 feet (about 60.96 m) tall. Generally, the trees are conical in shape and have drooping branches that are set close together. The leaf sprays are typically dark green in color and the bark is usually reddish-brown. If the evergreen leaves are crushed, they emit a spicy or a pine-like fragrance. Interestingly, if the seeds originated closer to the coastline, the trees are less hardy than those that originated inland where the trees can survive in cold temperatures.

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The western red cedar is often a favorite in large lawns across the western portion of North America. Many people love to add them to their landscaping because of their large size; in smaller yards, however, people may be shocked about the widths that these trees can reach. In some cases, the lower branches can grow so that the tree reaches about 60 feet (18.3 m) wide. If the lower branches are cut off to fit in smaller spaces, the trees may loose much of what makes them distinctively beautiful.

In addition to its use in landscaping, there are many additional uses for the western red cedar. For example, because it is attractive, durable, and insulating, it is often used to make shingles and shakes in the roofing industry. It can be used to make fence posts, utility poles, canoes, boxes, and paper pulp as well. Cedar leaf oil also is commonly used in perfumes, soaps, deodorants, and insecticides.

Many animals, such as deer and large game, use the western red cedar as a food source. Many Native American tribes used the wood to make matches, baskets, and mats. In addition, some tribal women used the wood to decorate dresses, capes, and skirts. Although these uses are less common today, many tribes still practice these traditions and use the bark and other components of the western red cedar a few times each year.

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