Plant of the Month - February 2019
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) - Provincial tree of British Columbia
Western red-cedar, in the Cypress Family (Cupressaceae), is one of BC’s favourite trees, revered by First Nations for all it provides. As well as its strong roots and branches and its tough, pliable inner bark, it is a major source of easily split, rot-resistant wood used for many different purposes. An evergreen coniferous tree, western red-cedar has scale-like, somewhat overlapping leaves rather than needles. The branches usually descend somewhat where they are attached to the trunk, then curve up towards the tips. The green branchlets, also somewhat drooping, are strongly flattened horizontally. The outer bark is grayish and vertically ridged, and the inner bark is reddish-brown, smooth and fibrous. The male (pollen-bearing) cones are numerous, tiny and reddish, and the female (seed-producing) cones grow up to 1 cm long, with few scales. Green when unripe and maturing to brown, they are borne singly or in loose clusters.
Western red-cedar prefers damp rich soil, and grows well in shaded areas, including floodplains, river terraces, seepage areas and moist slopes. It grows from sea level to moderate elevations in the mountains all along the British Columbia coast, north to southeastern Alaska, and south to northern California. Its range extends into the Interior wet belt of British Columbia and east as far as Idaho and Montana. Some of the biggest, oldest trees are found in the moist forests of the central Interior, southeast of Prince George.
A large, long-lived tree, in the right habitat western red-cedar can grow for over a thousand years, with immense circumferences, and heights up to 60 metres or more. The mature trees are fluted and flared at the base, helping to support the trees in the wind. Often the trees tend to become hollow in the centre, and serve as homes and hibernation dens for bears and other wildlife.
Western red-cedar leaves and branches are highly aromatic, and prized for Christmas decorations and other decorative purposes. They are sometimes simmered at the back of the stove as an air freshener and are said to help protect those in the household from sickness. They are also used in sweatbathing as an incense. The long, flexible branches, or withes, can be twisted into a strong rope, or used to make sturdy open-work baskets. The roots are the main material used to make the famous coiled baskets of the Salishan peoples: including the Quw’utsun (Cowichan), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Shíshálh (Sechelt), Lil’wat (Stl’atl’imx/ Lillooet), and Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), among others. They are carefully harvested in the late spring and early summer, peeled, split, bundled, and dried for later use, to be coiled and stitched into large flaring packbaskets, round cooking baskets and a variety of other types, decorated with patterns made from bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) bark, natural coloured red and dyed black, and the inner stems of grasses, such as reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea).
The bark of western red-cedar is harvested in long strips from younger trees in the early summer and used by First Nations throughout the range of the tree to make mats, clothing, baskets and cordage. This is done with great care, with usually only one strip taken from the tree so that it will have a chance to heal over with time. In the past, large rectangular sheets were removed from older trees to be used for roofing and siding for temporary summer houses. Again, harvesting was done with great care so as not to girdle the tree. Up and down the BC coast are thousands of “culturally modified” cedar trees (CMTs), some of them hundreds of years old, reflecting the sustainable harvesting methods of past generations of Indigenous Peoples.
Western red-cedar wood is famous for its ability to be split readily into planks (as well as shingles and shakes), and to be hollowed out, bent and molded to make canoes and bent-wood boxes, both essential in the lifeways of First Nations up and down the coast. The wood is also an excellent fast-burning kindling and was used to make firedrills in the past. Smouldering cedarbark could be enclosed within the two halves of a clam shell to make a “slow match” for transporting fire from place to place. Hilary Stewart’s famous book, Cedar, Tree of Life outlines and illustrates many of the ways in which this wonderful and lifegiving tree can be used. Commercially, western red-cedar, because it is so resistant to rot, is valued for use as siding, shakes, telephone poles, and fenceposts.
First Nations’ languages and vocabulary reflect the importance of this tree; most have separate terms for different parts of the tree. The Quw’utsun’ (Hul’qum’inum’) name for cedar wood, and sometimes the tree, is xpeyʔ. The tree itself is also called xpeyʔ-əłp, adding the suffix -əłp, meaning “plant or tree”. The inner bark is called slə́wəy, derived from the early term ləw, or ləʕw, meaning“to come off (as skin or bark)”.
At Wildwood, we have hosted some of the local First Nations basketweavers to harvested cedarbark from our trees. There are a couple of sites where the resulting CMTs can be seen. A couple, created from harvesting in 2007, are starting to heal over at the edges, showing the process of how perennial species such as cedar can be used and still keep living through natural regeneration of tissues. Our Wildwood logo, which presents the charismatic pileated woodpecker, also reflects an association with western redcedar, since these birds often peck their distinctive rectangular holes in cedar trees.
Because of the thin cell walls of its wood, western red-cedar is very susceptible to summer drought, and particularly to global warming. Once the cells collapse they are unable to serve as water conduits, and this results in the tops dying back. Many cedar trees can be seen on southern Vancouver Island with dead tops, due to drought, and many others – particularly those that have suffered root damage from highway construction or other disturbance – have died completely. We are proud of our western redcedar trees at Wildwood, and value them as species that are ecologically and culturally important, as well as for their wood.
Eldridge, M. 1997. The Significance and Management of Culturally Modified Trees. Final report prepared for Vancouver Forest Region and CMT Standards Steering Committee. URL: http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/ftp/archaeology/external/!publish/web/culturally_modified_trees_significance_management.pdf[accessed 11/01/2019]
Hebda, Richard J., and R.W. Mathewes. 1984. “Holocene History of Cedar and Native Indian Cultures of the North American Pacific Coast.” Science225: 711-12.
Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor). 2017. Thuja plicata Donn ex D. Don western redcedar. E-Flora BC: Electronic Atlas of the Plants of British Columbia [eflora.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Accessed: 11/01/2019].
Sewid-Smith, Daisy (Mayanilth), and Clan Chief Adam Dick (Kwaxsistalla), interviewed by Nancy J. Turner. 1998. “The Sacred Cedar Tree of the Kwakwaka’wakw People.” In Stars Above, Earth Below: Native Americans and Nature, ed. M. Bol, 189-209. Pittsburg, PA: Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Stewart, Hilary. 1984. Cedar: Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press; Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre.
Turner, Nancy J. 1998. Plant Technology of British Columbia First Peoples. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press; Victoria: BC: Royal BC Museum.
Turner, Nancy J. 2014. Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America. (2-vols). McGill-Queen’s Native and Northern Series Number 74. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Turner, Nancy J., and Richard J. Hebda. 2012. Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Important Plants of the WSÁNEĆ (Saanich) People of Southern Vancouver Island. Victoria: Royal BC Museum.
Zahn, Marie, Matthew I. Palmer and Nancy J. Turner. 2018. “Everything We Do, It's Cedar”: First Nation and Ecologically-Based Forester Land Management Philosophies in Coastal British Columbia. Journal of Ethnobiology38(3):314-332. URL: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.2993/0278-0771-38.2.314