By Zoey Kapusinski, VHR Summer Intern
Returning home after my freshman year at Whitman College has been fantastic for many reasons, but one of the best is my summer internship with Friends of the Cedar River Watershed. Eastern Washington is beautiful in its own right, but nothing beats the sprawling green of this side of the Evergreen State. Thanks to The Friends, I have the perfect opportunity to spend my Saturdays outdoors at different locations throughout the Lake Washington/Cedar River/Sammamish Watershed. The fresh air, gorgeous weather, and amazing volunteers provide a brilliant start to my weekend. Beyond the actual restoration work we do, I love learning about the various flora around my neck of the woods, and today I thought I might share my favorite tree with all of you.
Called the “tree of life” because of its innumerable uses, the western redcedar (Thuja plicata) is an invaluable conifer that flourishes from Alaska to northern California and as far inland as Montana. Though they thrive in mixed forests of moist habitats, they can also be found on dry or rocky slopes. The western redredar is actually a “false” cedar, an arborvitae, indicated by its one-word spelling. In fact, true cedars grow only in the Mediterranean.
Western redcedar trees are the kings of the Pacific Northwest. They are tall, easily reaching heights of 150-200 feet. They have a conical to irregular crown and many leaders. The dense branches have flattened frond-like, fanning branchlets which provide protection from the elements. One Native American word for the tree means “dry underneath.” The western redcedar is also the broadest tree in the northwest, with a base ranging from two to eight feet in diameter, and 15-20 feet for the ancient specimens. If left undisturbed, these trees can grow for more than one thousand years, stately sentinels observing the passage of time.
The foliage of the western redcedar is aromatic, with a spicy tinge. Its sharply-pointed, scale-like needles are glossy green above and white-striped below, opposing in alternating pairs in four rows. The bark is perhaps the best part of all. Ranging from gray to reddish brown, western redcedar bark is deeply furrowed and separated into flat, connected ridges. Its fibrous nature allows it to peel and shred easily, a fact of which humans have taken great advantage during their relatively short time.
Western redcedar aids wildlife and humans in a myriad of ways. Elk, deer, and rodents find the foliage an important food source. Black bears slumber away in hollowed-out trunks. Spotted owls and other bird species find valuable habitat among the trees found in the old growth forests.
The tree is especially vital to the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, some of whom call themselves “People of the Cedar.” Groves of ancient cedars were symbols of power and gathering places for ceremonies. The Native peoples used all parts of the tree for shelter, clothing, weapons, tools, medicines, art, and transportation.
Oftentimes, tribespeople stripped only the outerbark, leaving the tree itself alive and standing. I was incredibly honored to observe and participate in a modern day occurrence of this practice when I was invited to join my father, then Tribal Coordinator at the Cedar River Watershed, and a local tribe endeavoring to continue long-held traditions. Many specific criteria had to be met in order for a tree to be deemed healthy and strong enough to have some of its barked stripped, and even then bark was only taken from one side. The reverence the tribe had for the tree was evident in their ceremony, and it was an unforgettable experience.
In other cases, whole trees were felled in order to make totem poles or dugout cedar canoes. The cedar canoes were so impressive that some intrepid adventurers strove to circumnavigate the world in one of them. An important cultural event today, the Canoe Journey gathers several Pacific Northwest coast tribes together for a sea journey in traditional cedar ocean-going dugout canoes, culminating in a huge celebration filled with traditional food, art, dance, and more.
Modern uses take advantage of the beautiful and fragrant soft wood. Shingles and siding are particularly popular uses, but the wood is seen in fences, decks, outdoor furniture, and much more. When properly sealed, western redcedar wood may retain its odor for more than a century, repelling moths and other pests.
Growing up in the greater Seattle area, I have been surrounded by western redcedar in some form or another, and I never cease to be amazed by this beautifully majestic and sweet-smelling tree. These trees have been around for centuries, and I would sorely hate to lose them, as would millions of others who appreciate their existence, whether human, animal, or plant. The next time you see a cedar, feel free to take a moment and reflect on its importance and send a happy thought its way. I know I will.