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Western Redcedar

. . . and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree
to shelter all the children of one mother and
one father. And I saw that it was holy.

— Black Elk Speaks

Figure 1

Western Redcedar
at DeVoto Cedar Grove in Lochsa River canyon

arbor vitae or white cedar

Thuja plicata Donn ex D. Don

these crowns of western redcedar trees reach more than 200 feet toward the sky, topping off massive trunks that may be well over two thousand years old. Although no journalist mentioned them that day, the Corps of Discovery may have seen trees like these back home intermittently as they followed the Indian trail from their camp of 14 September 1805 for 2½ miles above the source of the Lochsa River, to the point where it led them up a steep ascent now known as Wendover Ridge. Typically, western redcedars may be found rising singly within relatively open, mixed-species forest habitats, or else in moist groves containing from 4 to 10 redcedars amid an understory of low growing perennials such as Equisetum spp. ("horsetails," which have no seeds, but reproduce and spread by rizomes), and one or more of the 380 species of ferns that grow naturally in the United States and Canada.

One of the best known and most accessible groves in the West is the Bernard DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove, located in the Clearwater National Forest a dozen miles southwest of Lolo Pass on U.S. Highway 12, and a shade over two miles up the Crooked Fork of the Lochsa River from the site of the Corps' camp on September 14, 1805. Covering only a little over 2 acres, it contains about 15 western redcedars, most of them exceeding three feet in diameter, and most of them well over 1,000 years old. The understory there is dominated by the graceful, feathery lady-fern (Athyrium filix-femina (uh-THI-ree-um PHIL-ix-FEM-in-uh), shrubby grand fir seedlings (Abies grandis; see footnote 6 there), and equisitum, commonly known as "horsetail," which is propagated by spores rather than seeds.3

The western redcedars, as well as the understory ferns, grand fir, and equisetum, are all vascular plants, each having xylem (ZEYE-lem), or woody tissue that conducts water and minerals, and non-woody tissue called phloem (FLO-em), which conducts the products of photosynthesis from the leaves to the roots.

Figure 2

Buttress Roots of mature T. plicata
at Lewis & Clark Grove, near Weippe Prairie

buttress roots on arbor vitae

Nature's architecture

buttress is a term botanists have borrowed from Medieval architects, who built thick masonry props to support high, heavy walls of castles, cathedrals and fortresses. Nature deals in a similar way with very tall, thick-boled, top-heavy trees having exceptionally dense crowns, such as the ancient old western redcedars growing in loose, shallow, moist soil. Like the famous bald cypresses (Taxodium distichum; tax-OH-dee-um, "like the taxus, or yew," DIS-tik-um, "two-part") of southeastern coastal swamps, they react by creating bundles of divergent root systems called "cypress knees" to keep themselves securely anchored to the earth's surface.

Those natural buttresses or props will reach the highest and protrude from the trunk the farthest on the side of the tree opposite the stress of, say, an asymmetrical canopy, or uneven soil density. For example, notice the tree in the right foreground of this photo (Fig. 2), which has grown a large buttress on the side to the viewer's left. The second of two trees at left of the trail appears to have a similar buttress. Only an experienced forester can explain why Nature had to prop them up, though anyone can see that the strategy has been working well for thousands, if not millions, of years.

at first glance, some members of the Corps of Discovery were sure they had seen them back east — although not this big around, and not nearly as tall. As they descended K'useyneiskit toward Weippe Prairie on 20 September 1805, Lewis took note of a few familiar shrubs, and concluded with the remark that "the Arborvita" — we may assume he pronounced it as he spelled it, are-bore-VEE-tuh — "is also common and grows to an immence size, being from 2 to 6 feet in diameter." More of it was to be seen the next day: "the Arborvita increases in quantity and size I saw several sticks today large enough to form eligant perogues of at least 45 feet in length." Private Joseph Whitehouse, too, evidently knew what to call it. He saw "Some tall Strait Siprass [cypress], or white ceeder to day," and later recalled its more common name: "Arbor vitae" (which he probably pronounced, colloquially, are-burr-VEYE-tee).

Whitehouse was right. Both the white cedar back home and the western redcedar of the Far West are members of the same botanical family, Cypress, which botanists have Latinized into Cupressaceae (koo-pres-SAY-see-eye). Ignoring the obvious differences in size and and preferred habitats (compare Figs 2 and 3), it was so familiar in terms of its foliage, its heady aroma, and the qualities of its wood that they never wondered whether it was a new or old species, and got into the habit — perhaps on the recommendation of their only authority on botany, Captain Lewis — of calling it by both of their two common names for it, "white cedar or arborvitae." Therefore, when Lewis stepped up to his desk at Fort Clatsop on the fourth of February, 1806, to begin writing his remarkably detailed and technically precise descriptions of the six species of "fir" he had seen in the neighborhood of Fort Clatsop, he did not include the "arborvitae or white cedar" simply because it was not new to him. Indeed, his commander in chief had proudly remarked of him in a letter to Benjamin Smith Barton, "Altho' no regular botanist &cc. he possesses a remarkable store of accurate observation on all the subjects of the three kigdoms, & will therefore readily single out whatever presents itself new to him."4

Figure 3

"white cedar or arbor vitae"

northern white cedar

Thuja occidentalis L.

among the eastern Arbor vitae in this forest are a few mature trees that are considerably smaller in terms of height and diameter-at-breast-height (abbreviated by foresters as dbh) than the average Thuja plicata of the northwest. Moreover, these specimens generally do not require massive root buttresses to hold them up.

The specific epithet occidentalis is Latin for "western." But his binomial was published by Carl Linnæus in 1753, when the known habitat of the species was north and west of the New England Colonies.

The men of the Corps probably were not aware that their "arborvitae or white cedar" had already acquired a formal, two-part name, a binomial by which it could be recognized world-wide, regardless of its various local or regional common names. That binomial, cast in unique botanical Latin, remains Thuja occidentalis L. As a uniquely American species, it had been imported into European formal gardens as an ornamental tree-shrub as far back as 1566. The aromatic appeal of the balsamic oil that it exuded was irresistible, so that by the end of the 18th century it was being transplanted from one garden to the next throughout Europe.

But the tree that caught the Corps' attention west of today's Lolo Pass, growing beside the Lochsa River on the lower west slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains, along the lower Columbia River and on the brim of the Pacific Ocean, was a species that is unique to the Far West of North America. So, what was it, really?


the first European naturalist to be drawn to the extremely tall, large-bodied, high-crowned, seductively fragrant tree was the French botanist Luis Née (fl. 1734–1803). Nèe was a member of the five-year (1789–94) Spanish scientific expedition commanded by the Italian nobleman Alejandro Malaspina (1754–1810), among whose objectives was the mapping of the entire Pacific Coast of both South and North America. In the early 1790s Née collected a specimen of what appeared to be—and certainly smelled like—a cedar tree in the vicinity of the Spanish outpost at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The specimen was most likely the tip of a branch showing the foliage, perhaps with a few of the very small seed cones. For some unknown reason he gave the specimen's source neither a name nor a formal description that would serve to legitimize it. Nevertheless, Née's specimen was deposited in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, England.

In 1807 the English naturalist James Donn (1758-1813) studied Née's specimen and named it Thuja plicata (THOO-yuh plye-KAY-tuh). But he didn't write a description of it either, so the name he chose could not officially be entered into the botanical taxa as that of a known, systematically collected and described species. Four years later the Scottish botanist David Don (1799-1841) supplied and published the obligatory description in botanical Latin, and the full name of the species was expanded to identify the botanists by whom the species' record was validated: Thuja plicata Donn ex D.Don.5 Née had merely collected the single type specimen, the holotype, which served as a basis for the formal name and description by which it could be identified worldwide, but he had nothing to do with the validation of it, so his involvement was not formally acknowledged in the name. Nonetheless, for several decades, discussions of it in books on trees of the Pacific Northwest considerately acknowledged it as "Nèe's Arborvitae."

That could well have been the end of the story. But it was not to be. In 1832 the British botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761-1842) published the following Classification and Diagnosis of Thuja plicata. Of course we all know what a medical diagnosis is, but in the biological sciences it has a different role. It is a "distinctive characterization in precise terms of a genus or species."6 The Classification and Diagnosis are written in botanical Latin, which is basically Renaissance Latin as it was taught in European and American universities until almost the end of the 18th century, expanded by new, Latinized terms and constructions, with numerous additions from other languages, most notably Greek.

[Thuja plicata,] ramulis compressis patulis; foliis rhombeo-ovatis. acutis appressis quadrifariam imbricatis nudis medio tuberculatis; strobilis oblongis, nutantibus: squamis ellipticis, obtusis, planis.

Thuja plicata, with branchlets flattened, spreading; with leaves rhombic-ovate [partly oval or egg-shaped, partly oblique non-equilateral parallelograms]. Imbricate [composed of scales or scalelike parts overlapping like roof-tiles] in four ranks, smooth, tuberculate [having small swellings or protuberances] in the middle; with cones oblong, nodding [bent or curved downward], with scales elliptic, blunt-tipped, flat.

Arbor ramossissima, diffusa, laetè-virens. Rami patentes conferti, cortice rubro-fusco obducti. Ramuli densi, patuli, iterùm divisi, pectinati, compressi. Folia rhombeo-ovata, acuta, arctè appressa, quadrifariam imbricata, approximata absque internotiis, glabra, integerrima, nitida, medio tuberculata. Strobili sparsi, solitarii, nutantes, oblongi: squamis ellipticis, obtusis, planis, obsoletè sulcatis.

Very much-branched tree, diffusely [widespread] branched, bright green. Branches spreading, closely spaced, covered with reddish-brown bark. Branchlets [smaller branches growing from larger ones] dense, spreading, twice-branched, pectinate [with narrow projections forming a comb-like pattern], flattened. Leaves rhomboid-ovate, acute [pointed], appressed [pressed close to each other or to the stem] in a curve, imbricate in four ranks, so closely spaced that there are scarcely internodes [parts of a stem or branch between two of the nodes or knots to which leaves would be attached] between them, smooth, entire [leaf edges smooth, not toothed], shiny, tuberculate in the middle. Cones few, nodding, oblong, with the scales elliptic, blunt-tipped, flat, obscurely [inconspicuously] grooved.

Meanwhile, the few recently acquired cedar trees cultivated in European gardens as T. plicata were judged to be practically indistinguishable from the northeastern white cedar, T. occidentalis, so the latter name was applied to all, and T. plicata was simply disregarded by many botanists. The proof was in the holotypes and systematics that Europeans had at hand. Early in the 1830s, however, the Boston businessman, inventor and amateur naturalist Nathaniel J. Wyeth (1802-1856) set out on his own to explore the Northwest. In 1834 he founded a fur trading post he named Fort Hall, which became the most important trading post in the Snake River Valley, and is now the city of Fort Hall, Idaho. Also, he established Fort William on Sauvie Island in the Columbia River — the island that the explorers had named Wappetoe Island — that had hidden the mouth of the Multnomah River from Lewis and Clark until their return eastward in 1806. Rather impulsively, Wyeth collected numerous botanical specimens en route, although he often neglected to write any notes about them. In 1835 the pioneer American botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) joined Wyeth in a new botanical exploration of the Pacific Northwest, studying and describing many of Wyeth's specimens, including the one that soon was to become commonly known as the western redcedar. All he knew of the specimen was that it had been collected somewhere between the Rocky Mountains and "the sources of the Columbia River." Nevertheless, he went to work on it. To begin with, he changed the specific epithet to gigantea.7 [7 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.]

Figure 4

western redcedar

Figure 5

redcedar leaves


"Tree of Life"

the name of the genus, Thuja (THOO-juh, or THOO-yuh), is a Greek word meaning "fragrant." Theophrastus (380-288 BCE), the venerable "father of botany," applied it to a now-unidentified aromatic juniper. Taxonomically, the western redcedar is neither a juniper nor a cedar but a member of the order Cupressales and the family Cupressaceae (koo-press-AY-see-eye); both Latin terms may be translated as cypress or redwood. The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), established by Congress in 1996 as a regulatory interagency, indicates that in common parlance the genus Thuja may be referred to as arborvitae (Latin for "tree of life"), cèdre (French for cedar), thuya (Linnæus's spelling of Thuja), and redcedar.8 [8 George B. Sudworth, "Miscellaneous Conifers of the Rocky Mountain Region," Bulletin of the U.S, Department of Agriculture No. 680 (August 14, 1918), 33.]

The specific epithet, or name of the species, plicata (ply-CAY-tuh) is a Latin word that means "folded into plaites." It refers to the lacy, pendant sprays of leaves that comprise its unique foliage (Fig. 2). The plaits consist of opposing pairs of tiny (1 to 4 mm long, 1 to 2 mm wide) overlapping scale-shaped leaves—not needles—that resemble flattened braids. The men of the Corps of Discovery could have seen the crowns of giant western redcedars topping out at almost 250 feet (75 meters), and reaching 16 feet (5 meters) or more in diameter at breast height.

Western redcedars reach ages of from 500 to more than 1,000 years. Two in particular are known to have reached 1212 and 1460 years, respectively, by the close of the 20th century.8 Sometimes, at ground level, old redcedars can be recognized by the buttresses or knees that develop to secure and stabilize them, especially in soft, moist earth. 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 southward into Montana and Idaho.9 Lewis and Clark chose to call it by the eastern common name, "white cedar."

As they searched for lumber to use in building Fort Clatsop, their winter garrison of 1805-06, the men of the Corps were probably looking for something comparable to their familiar northeastern white cedar, Thuja occidentalis L.10 Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they called the tree that seemed to resemble T. occidentalis by its nickname, "arborvitae." which is considerably smaller than the western redcedar, growing to a maximum of between 60 and 100 feet (20 to 28 meters). The northern white cedar was used for shingles during colonial times, though it did not split quite as easily as the western species.11

Figure 6

Fashion Plate

indian woman gathering bark

"The Bark Gatherer"
by Edward S. Curtis (c. 1915)
Sepia toned photogravure print from

The North American Indian,
Vol. 11, Plate 383
Original size, 45 x 33cm (17.7 x 13 in)

describe how women peel bark.

just 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 seagoing canoes from redcedar logs. Haida, Tlinkit, and Tsimschan tribes of southeastern Alaska, and many other native people, including Chinooks and Clatsops, as far south as today's northern California. They all built their roomy, extended family, post and beam houses with redcedar posts, and planks rived from living redcedars with wedges of hardwood, bone, stone or obsidian.11 Altogether, anthropologists have found that native peoples in the Northwest had more than 30 different uses for the western redcedar.12 The Corps of Discovery would quickly have learned that western redcedar is an excellent fuel for drying meat as well as for heating homes because it it produces a hot flame with little smoke.

They used the tree's bark to fashion womens' skirts, capes, and dresses, as well as men's clothing, plain or fancy, and those "hats of a conic figure" made famous by Lewis and Clark. On 19 March 1806, only four days before the Corps bade farewell forever to their Clatsop friends and neighbors, Meriwether Lewis described their physical appearance, including their clothing (cp. fig. 2):

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 familiar view.13

The Clatsops and other peoples on the Pacific Coast teased fibers of redcedar roots, branches (withes) and strips of both outer and inner bark into ropes, baskets, cooking-boxes, and mats—such as the one the Hesquiat woman in Curtis's photograph (Fig. 2) is wearing over her head and shoulders to shed rain. On her back she carries rolls of unshredded bark, the broader ones to make dishes, plates, bowls and canoe bailers, the narrower to make other utensils, or to be woven into floor mats.(n) [(n) Erna Gunther, Ethnobotany of western Washington. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, vol. 10, no. 1 (1945), 1-62.] In her left hand is a steel-bladed adz, which she uses to start the peeling of bark. She is standing beside the trunk of a fallen western redcedar tree which appears to be more than five feet in diameter.

Native Survival Tool

with the cooperation of an unnamed Clatsop, Chinnook, or Cathlamet informant, Lewis studied the construction of their bows and arrows, which every man relied on for hunting "every species of anamal on which they subsist." Their bows were "extreamly neat and very elastic," he began. "They are about two and a half feet in length, and two inches in width in the center, thence tapering gradually to the extremities where they are half an inch wide." In other words, they were what EuroAmerican archers called "self" bows, being made of a single piece of wood, as opposed to "back'd" bows, which were made of two pieces of wood whose joint at the grip was reinforced with horn or sinews. "[T]hey are very flat and thin, formed of the heart of the arbor vita or white cedar, the back of the bow [the side opposite the archer] being thickly covered with sinews of the Elk laid on with a gleue which they make from the sturgeon;" [by boiling a sturgeon's air-sac] "the string is made of sinues of the Elk also."[(n) Moulton, Journals, 6:206–07.]

The western redcedar provided the best drill and hearth to be used for igniting fires by friction, and small pieces of the inner bark were split into "slow matches" to carry fire from one camp or lodge to another. When medicine was needed, they invoked the spiritual, healing power of their holy tree, especially its leaves, from which decoctions were made to treat various afflictions of body and mind.

—Joseph Mussulman, 10/2013; rev. 7/2014

1. Black Elk Speaks; Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, as told through John G. Neihardt (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1932), 36.

2. Peter H. Raven, Ray F. Evert and Susan E. Eichhorn, Biology of Plants, (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2005), 389.

3. Juanita Lichthardt, "Inventory of Giant Western Redcedar Groves on the Clearwater National Forest: 1998 Survey," Boise, Idaho: Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 1999.

4. Emphasis added; February 27, 1803; Jackson, Letters, 1:17.] The tree of life, an archetypal symbol of a supreme deity, was central to the cosmologies of many native cultures.

5. In Hortus Cantabrigiensis, or an Accented Catalogue of Indigenous and Exotic Plants Cultivated in the Cambridge Botanic Garden Edition 6 (Cambridge, England, 1811), 249.

6. Translated expressly for Discovering Lewis & Clark® by Dr. James S. Pringle, Plant Taxonomist, Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

7. The name "tree of life" has been attributed to the Kwakwaka'wakw nation of northern Vancouver Island and adjoining islands and coastal mainlands, who were contacted by Captain George Vancouver on 13 July 1792. Among the seventeen tribes of the Kwakwaka'wakw-speaking people, the Kwakiutl ("Smoke of the World") tribe has been the most widely known since the mid-twentieth century. Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, Plants of Coastal British Columbia including Washington, Oregon & Alaska (Vancouver B.C.: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994), 42. "Kwakwaka'wakw," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwakwaka%27wakw (accessed 23 August 2013. C. F. Newcombe, ed., Menzies' Journal of Vancouver's Voyage, April to October, 1792 (Victoria, B.C.: William H. Cullin, 1923), 82–83.

6. 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.

7. George B. Sudworth, "Miscellaneous Conifers of the Rocky Mountain Region," Bulletin of the U.S, Department of Agriculture No. 680 (August 14, 1918), 33.

8. 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.

9. Flora of North America, at www.eFloras.org (retrieved January 14, 2013)

10. Archaeological research has revealed that long distance trading of obsidian, a dark volcanic glass from a cliff in the vicinity of the Yellowstone caldera, was common on the upper Northwest Coast as long as 12,000 years ago. Roy L Carlson and Luke Dalla Bona, Early Human Occupation in British Columbia (Vancouver, British Columbia: UBC Preess, 1996),127.

11. Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, eds., Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Vancouver, BC: Lone Pine Press, 1994)

12. 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 rive nearly as easily as the larger species.

13. Moulton, Journals 6:434–36.

(xx) Daniel Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1998), xxx.

(n) William T. Stearn, Botanical Latin: History, Grammar, Syntax, Terminology and Vocabulary, 4th ed. (Trowbridge, England: David & Charles Publishers, 1993), 59, 102.

From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)