Thuja plicata Donn
"Tree of Life"
he generic name Thuja (pronounced as spelled), came from a Greek word that Theophrastus (380-288 BCE), the venerable "father of botany," applied to a now-unidentifiable aromatic juniper, although the so-called western redcedar is not a cedar but a member of the Cypress family commonly known as arborvitae—Latin for "tree of life."
The specific epithet plicata (pli-cay-tuh) is a Latin word that describes the lacy, pendant sprays comprising its unique foliage (figure 2), which consist of opposing pairs of tiny (1 to 4 mm long, 1 to 2 mm wide) overlapping scale-shaped leaves—not needles. The men of the Corps of Discovery could have seen giant western redcedars up to 200 feet (60 meters) tall and 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter at breast height, and from 500 to 1,000 years old.1 The native range of the western redcedar extends along the Pacific Coast from the extreme northern California coast to southeastern Alaska as far east as the western slopes of the Cascade Range. It also thrives on the western slopes of the northern Rockies from central British Columbia into Montana and Idaho.2 Lewis and Clark came to know it as "white cedar,"
The men of the Corps were probably looking for something comparable to their familiar Atlantic white-cedar, (Camaecyparis thyoides (Linnaeus) Britton, Sterns & Poggenburg, of the Cupressaceae family. which is considerably smaller than the western red cedar, growing to between 60 and 100 feet (20 to 28 meters).3 The Atlantic white-cedar was used for shingles during colonial times, though it did not split quite as easily as the western species.4
ust as tribes on the High Plains used every part of the bison to provide their daily necessities, native people of the northwest Pacific Coast used nearly every part of the western redcedar. That lofty, heaven-bent tree was a crucial cornerstone of their culture. Coastal tribes divined its inner spirit and carved out their majestic totem poles and dance masks with reverent prayers and supplications. With suitably respectful rituals they carved their river- and sea-going canoes from redcedar logs. Haida, Tlinkit, and Tsimschan tribes of southeastern Alaska, and other native people as far south as today's northern California, built their massive, extended-family, post-and-beam houses with redcedar posts and planks hewn with stone or obsidian axes.
They even used the tree's bark to fashion skirts, capes, and womens' dresses, as well as men's clothing, plain or fancy. Lewis described them as follows:
The Clatsops and other Chinookan-speaking people teased fibers of redcedar roots, branches (withes) and strips of both outer and inner bark into ropes, mats, baskets, cooking-boxes, and other containers. They split fingers of inner bark into "slow matches" to carry fire from one camp or lodge to the next. When medicine was in order, their shamans looked to other parts of their revered "tree of life."
|The garment which occupys the waist, and from thence as low as nearly to the knee before and the ham, behind, . . . is a tissue of white cedar bark, bruised or broken into small shreds, which are interwoven in the middle by means of several cords of the same materials, which serve as well for a girdle as to hold in place the shreds of bark which form the tissue, and which shreds confined in the middle hang with their ends pendulous from the waist, the whole being of sufficient thickness when the female stands erect to conceal those parts usually covered from formiliar view.|
1. Raymond J. Boyd, 1965. Western redcedar (Thuja plicata Donn), in Silvics of forest trees of the United States (1965), 686-691. H. A. Fowells, comp., (Washington, DC.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Handbook, 271.)
2. Ralf Kittler, Manfred Kayser and Mark Stoneking, "Erratum: Molecular evolution of Pediculus humanus and the origin of clothing." Retrieved February 8, 2013. Also Oxford Journals, Molecular Biology and Evolution, vol. 28, no. 1 (2011): 29-32.
3. Flora of North America, at www.eFloras.org.
4. The so-called "yellow cedar" (Cupressus nootkatensis, also a member of the Cypress family ), is the only other "cedar" found on the West Coast, occupying nearly the same habitat as the western redcedar. Overall, it is somewhat smaller at maturity than the western redcedar, and it doesn't split nearly as easily as the larger species.