Northern White Cedar

Thuja occidentalis

Description & Overview

Northern White Cedar is a beautiful native evergreen that appreciates cool, rich, moist, alkaline soils. It is often used as an evergreen screen due to its dense, bright green fan-shaped boughs and delicate reddish brown peeling bark. Native from Minnesota to Maine and south to northern Illinois this tree loves the cold. It is tolerant of drier, compacted soils as well as Black Walnut.

You may also know this plant as Eastern White Cedar, American Arborvitae, or Swamp Cedar.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 20-30 feet
Mature Spread: 10-15 feet
Growth Rate: Moderate
Growth Form: Tree
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade
Site Requirements: Cool, moist, nutrient-rich sites. Tolerant of Black Walnut, as well as compact soils and
Flower: Insignificant
Bloom Period: Spring
Foliage: Bright Green
Fall Color: N/A
Fruit Notes: Cone

Suggested Uses:

Barrier/Border/Screen: Northern White Cedar’s rather dense, evergreen leaves, provide a great screen to block a neighbor’s wandering eye or to block the view from the road. It is tolerant of air pollution.

Ornamental, Specimen: This is a beautiful evergreen tree with eye-catching flakey bark that can stand alone (and be fabulous) while providing shade.

Northern White Cedar is a great tree to use in soil that does not drain very well as it enjoys moist soil and can also tolerate wet soil. A good option for an area with a rain garden. Also likes long walks on the beach. Just kidding, it is intolerant of salt.

Wildlife Value:

The leaves are highly nutritious, and the foliage of young trees is preferred forage for deer, snowshoe hare, and porcupine. Moose do not favor this tree, using it only when all other food is scarce. Sapling stands can be decimated by deer and hares during the winter, resulting in decreased population growth. Porcupine can girdle the stems and branches ultimately resulting in slower growth. Squirrels tend to chew off the tips containing seeds, reducing reproductive potential.

Carpenter ants use the heartwood to nest and feed in, which can lead to the weakening of the branches leaving them more susceptible to breakage, as well as lowering the lumber’s value. The plus side is that Pileated Woodpeckers enjoy snacking on the ants!

Deer and other mammals use the dense foliage as cover from the worst winter weather. Many species of birds like ovenbirds, kinglets, and warblers use dense foliage for nesting and general cover.

Maintenance Tips:

Trees under 7 feet tall are in danger of being killed if over browsed. They must be protected.

The trunk or stems can break due to the weight of ice and snow and foliage may exhibit winter burn from time to time. In general, though, this tree can handle temps that dip to -45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Leaves may turn a greenish-brown color in colder weather, this is normal do not be alarmed.

No pruning is necessary unless there are damaged branches. This is a rather low-maintenance tree.

Naturally growing Northern White Cedar. Door County, WI.


Northern White Cedar is intolerant of salt. Give this tree some clearance from a road or walkway where salt will be used in winter.

Leaf blight and canker are possible. Insects are generally not a problem. Leaf miners can cause scorching on the foliage resulting in the death of a twig and in severe cases the tree itself. In some settings, there have been some instances of heavy infestation by, bagworms, mealybug, scales, and spider mites. There are few serious diseases.

Leaf Lore:

An Northern White Cedar in Michigan measured in at 111 feet tall with a spread of 42 feet and a trunk 5 feet in diameter.

These trees are very long-lived. The oldest living tree is over 1,000 years old, germinating in 952 A.D.! Other trees that are now dead were found to have been over 1,500 years old. Currently, in Quebec and Ontario, there is a known stand of trees that are over 800 years old. This is a valued tree for dendroclimatic research (the study of climate by inspecting tree rings,) due to its long-life span.

Name: Northern White Cedar was brought back to Europe by French explorer Cartier after an overseas journey in the 17th century in which much of his crew ended up with scurvy. Native Americans taught him to use Eastern White Cedar tea, which is rich in vitamin C, to treat scurvy. He was so pleased with the results that he brought back clippings of the tree to France. They planted and propagated the tree, naming it Arborvitae, meaning the “Tree of life.”

Cultivars: There are a whole lot of very popular cultivars. Degroot’s Spire, Emerald Arborvitae, Holmstrup, Hetz Midget Arborvitae, Technito® Arborvitae, Techny, and Trautman Juniper are just a few of the ones that Johnson’s Nursery sells. These cultivars vary in size and shape and were cultivated to suit many different landscaping needs.

Historical Uses: Native Americans used Northern White Cedar bark and wood as cordage, mattresses, shingles for roofs, and more. The wood splits easily and was favored to make canoes. Fibrous bark was used as tinder and to make baskets and bags. Medicinally, it was used for coughs, headaches, and other ailments, as well as to induce menstrual bleeding. The essential oil has caused deaths and shouldn’t be ingested.

Today Northern White Cedar is used for poles, cross ties, posts, and lumber. The wood is decay resistant and is often used to build things that will contact water such as fencing and boats. Also used for log cabins, kraft pulp, and particleboard. The foliage is used in flower arrangements and Christmas swags and wreaths. Cedar oil is used in insect repellents, medicines, and as a scent for many health and wellness products.

Due to its thin bark and high oil content, this tree is highly flammable. The shallow roots can also be damaged by fire.

Companion Plants:

Northern White Cedar is found in nature amongst other trees like Quaking Aspen, Bigtooth Aspen, and White Spruce. The most common shrubs found underneath Northern White Cedar in its native habitat are Speckled Alder, Mountain Maple, and Redosier Dogwood. Mosses, liverwort such as Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Liverwort), and False Solomon’s Seal are found in the understory.

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