Quick facts

Common name: western red cedar

Scientific name: Thuja plicata

Family: Cupressaceae

Origin: non-native

A tall, conical, evergreen tree, reaching up to 65m. Some specimens of western red cedar can live to be over a thousand years old. It is pyramidal in shape, with a broad trunk and dense fern-like foliage. The bark is ridged and dark reddish-brown.

Look out for: the flat sprays of foliage which smell sweet when crushed. The distinctive cones are specifically oval shaped, not globes, and have between 1 and 12 scales. The wings down each side of the seeds are papery.

What does western red cedar look like?

Western red cedar leaves and needles close-up

Credit: D Mark / Alamy Stock Photo

Leaves

Leaf bases cover the twigs, creating flattened sprays of foliage in opposite pairs. Leaves sprouting from the twigs are small, only 2–3mm long, and scale-like with an ovate shape. They are dark glossy green above with whitish markings underneath.

Western red cedar seed cones

Credit: Arterra Picture Library / WTML

Flowers

The species is monoecious, which means that both male and female flowers grow on the same tree. Male flowering cones are small and inconspicuous. Female flowering cones are small, reddish-purple, and borne near the tips of branches.

Western red cedar pine cones

Credit: FloralImages / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

Small, woody cones are brown, slender and oval-shaped with scales. Seeds are brown ovals with narrow wings on either side.

Not to be confused with:

Other planted cypresses. The cones and scented foliage tell it apart.

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Where to find western red cedar

Native to North America, the western red cedar is planted in Britain, often as evergreen hedging in gardens or for timber. It is tolerant of dense shade.

Did you know?

The foliage smells like pear drops or pineapple when crushed.

Value to wildlife

The tree's dense foliage attracts many birds and insects which find shelter in the fissured bark.

Mythology and symbolism

Western red cedar is an important tree in Native American cultures, and is the provincial tree emblem for British Columbia. It is said to be a very strong tree and its strength is celebrated in its native land. Tales say that a person could receive its strength just by standing with their back to the tree.

Did you know?

Western red cedar is sometimes called an 'arborvitae' which is Latin for ‘tree of life’, because the evergreen foliage lives without any obviously visible buds.

Uses of western red cedar

In the UK, the tree is planted for timber and shelter. The wood is highly sought after, being one of the most durable in the world. It has an aromatic fragrance which can be retained for long periods of time and it also contains a natural preservative which is resistant to fungal attack. The durable wood is soft and good for construction.

Some of the tribes living on northwest coast of America depended extensively on the tree, not only making wooden objects but also using the bark and roots for domestic items such as ropes, blankets and even clothing; while the wood was used in the curing and cooking of fish.

Threats and conservation

Western red cedar may be susceptible to attacks by scale insects and conifer aphids that suck the sap from the tree.