Northern White Cedar is of the most popular landscaping trees in North America. You pretty much can’t pass through a suburban neighborhood without seeing at least several of this tree whether it is isolated specimens or a hedge. In this article I’ll tell you everything you need to know to choose the right variety, grow and care for this excellent native evergreen.
It’s shapeliness and being an evergreen are only a couple of White Cedar’s many benefits. In fact I myself have a row of White Cedar that I planted over 5 years ago as little bare root saplings. But this article will be a complete profile on White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis.
In this article:
- What is White Cedar
- What are the benefits of White Cedar
- How to Grow and Care for White Cedar
- Identification / Characteristics
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect White Cedar
- Where to buy White Cedar
- Uses of White Cedar
What is White Cedar
Northern White Cedar is a coniferous tree native to Eastern and Northern North America. Scientifically known as Thuja occidentalis, this evergreen tree will grow 40-60′ tall at maturity in full sun and moist to medium-moist soil. Valuable to wildlife, this tree feeds birds, white-tail deer, squirrel, porcupine, and caterpillars of several moths. 
Also known as American Arborvitae, this tree is one of the most popular wind-break and hedge trees in the world. It’s so widely loved due to it’s fast growth rate, adaptability to different growing conditions, and because of it’s beautiful pyramidal shape.
Facts about Northern White Cedar
- One of the most popular ornamental landscaping trees, more than 120 named cultivars have been developed. Generally they are listed as some form of ‘arborvitae’, such as “Emerald” and “Green Giant”.
- An extremely durable wood, Northern White Cedar is very resistant to rot and even termites avoid it
- A long-lived tree, Northern White Cedars can live up to 400 years old. And the oldest tree was found in Ontario and estimated to be more than 1650 years old! 
- White Cedar does not withstand fire well, and thus evolved to do best in swampy, yet well-drained sites that are less like to experience forest fires
- The rot-resistant wood of Northern White Cedar makes it’s lumber prized for exterior applications such as shingles, siding, poles, or any ground/water contact application.
- Essential oils are steam-distilled from the boughs after timber production for use in perfumes and aromatic oils
- Northern White Cedar has been documented to be juglone tolerant, and can grow near Black Walnut Trees
Native Range of Northern White Cedar
The native range of Northern White Cedar runs from Minnesota / Manitoba East to New Brunswick, South to Connecticut and New York and then West across the Great Lakes to Wisconsin. There are also isolated pockets in the Smokey and Appalachian Mountains from Tennessee and North Carolina to Ohio/PA and Virginia.
The extremes ranges of Northern White Cedars are at the border of the tundra in Northern Canada all the way South to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. So, one can see just how adaptable this tree is to different climates.
As a testament to its adaptability is the fact that it can grow all but the driest or moist soils. For sun, it can grow out in the open in full sun or partial shade. It is most frequently found growing in the wild on rich organic soils near streams and rivers.
One can expect to find Northern White Cedar growing near creeks, rivers, and streams in rich organic peat soil such as the boreal forests of the great lakes and Canada. It will grow on upland soils in it’s western range, which is mainly within openings or the borders of a forest. 
White Cedar Reference Table
|Scientific Name||Thuja occidentalis|
|Common Name(s)||Northern White Cedar, American Arborvitae, Eastern White Cedar, Swamp Cedar, White Cedar, Eastern arborvitae, Atlantic Red Cedar|
|Native Range, USDA Zone||Northeastern United States and Canada, USDA Hardiness Zones 2-7|
|Growth Rate||1-2′ per year in optimum conditions (30-60 cm)|
|Spacing / Spread||10-15′ (3-4.5 m)|
|Light Requirements||Full Sun to part shade|
|Soil Types||Sandy loam, loam, clay|
|Moisture||Moist to medium-moist soil|
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts||Deer, rabbits, pocupine, birds roost in White Cedar|
What are the Benefits of Northern White Cedar
As a conifer, Northern White Cedar will keep it’s evergreen leaves year round. The green color makes it stand out after the leaves have fallen from the surrounding deciduous trees.
The overall shape of Northern White Cedar is a conical shape. The trees look quite handsome as isolated specimens or planted as a hedge.
Seeds from Northern White Cedar feed numerous birds and even squirrels. It also hosts larvae from several moths, which also feed birds. In the wild, stands of Northern White Cedar are valuable to white-tailed deer as forage and cover, particularly in Winter.
Although sometimes referred to as ‘Swamp White Cedar’, it can grow in many different conditions. The roots will adapt to most any moisture level except the wettest or dries of locations.  So, it is suitable for any residential area that drains well.
Most references rate Northern White Cedar as a slow to medium growing tree. And this is very true in the wild. But in residential applications, in full sun and well draining soil I’ve found Northern White Cedar to grow approximately 2′ per year.
I planted a row of 7 trees in 2017 that were between 2-3′ tall. The tallest ones are now over 10′, and the smallest ones are ~8′ tall. So that is nearly 2′ per year, which for trees, is quite fast. And for reference, I’m in zone 6 of Southern Pennsylvania.
Grow and Care for White Cedar
Northern White Cedar will grow best in full sun, which is a minimum time of six hours of direct sunlight per day. It will benefit somewhat by having some afternoon shade though during the hottest parts of the day. It can tolerate light shade, but it’s growth rate will be reduced.
Northern White Cedar prefers a loose peat-like soil, but can grow in a wide variety of textures. Anything from sandy loam to clay can work with this tree, as long as it isn’t wet all the time. It generally likes to grow in acidic to neutral soils with pH of 5.5-7.2.  
Northern White Cedar prefers moist-soil, and can tolerate occasional flooding. But it is adaptable to drier, well-drained upland sites. The root system adapts whilst young to it’s moisture conditions. And it is even found growing in limestone outcroppings and bluffs. 
Northern White Cedar leaves turning red
In Spring once temperatures begin to warm up, you may notice reddening or rust coloring of branches that eventually fall to the ground. This is normal, as the old branches that don’t receive enough sun will be discarded by the tree. But, you may need to pick them up off the ground. 
Northern White Cedar leaves turning yellow
There are several causes for the leaves of Northern White Cedar turning yellow. The primary causes are drought, road salts, and extreme Winter weather. Dehydration is particularly damaging and can cause winterkill. Winter drought is the most severe threat the tree will face in winter.  
The deicing salts applied to roads will sometimes be sprayed up on foliage. This foliage will then die back in Winter.   The overall tree will recover, and just the effected branches will need to be removed.
But I personally do not fertilize my Northern White Cedar trees at my home. They are all doing great.
Identification and Characteristics of White Cedar
Stalk / Bark
Northern White Cedar grows 30-60′ tall when mature by single or multiple trunks. The maximum a trunk will grow is around 6′ (2 m). It will form a columnar or oblongoid-conical crown. Bark will be brown or red-brown to a red-gray color, and somewhat rough but vertically divided.  
Unlike pine trees, Northern White Cedar will have evergreen leaves, not needles. The leaves are scale-like, opposite, very small – 1/16″ to 1/4″ long (1-6mm) and lanceolate in shape. The picture below should describe the foliage better than I can. 
Interior foliage in Spring
After Winter has passed and Spring has arrived, you may notice the tree shedding interior branches or leaflets. This is normal, as the tree will naturally remove any foliage that doesn’t produce food via photosynthesis.
Small terminal cones develop (both male and female) on the same tree on different branchlets. The male cones are very small, roughly 1/16″ long (2 mm), yellow and around while female cones are 3/4-1/2″ (9-12 mm), ellipsoid in shape and upright. When ripe, the cones are a reddish brown color. The ones are generally coustered on the small branchlets. 
Seed is approximately 1/4″ long (6 mm) and has wings that are as wide as the body. Seed is spread via winds, and it is estimated that a seed can travel 50 yards (50 m) on wind.
The root system of Northern White Cedar is variable in that it is shallow and spreading red roots in moist to medium-moist soil. And in drier soils it can develop longer taproots. 
This is a similar behavior to Black Locust Trees, in that the roots develop in response to the growing conditions, allowing the tree more potential habitat.
Northern White Cedar Toxicity
Compounds derived from Northern White Cedar leaves leaves have found to be toxic to mice and brine shrimp.   The leaves of Northern White Cedar contain thujones that are toxic to dogs, cats, horses, and cows.  These primarily occur in the leaf and leaf tips in higher concentrations. Essential oils distilled from these are toxic and overdoses have occurred. 
Northern White Cedar versus Eastern Red Cedar
Common names with plants can get confusing, so I would like to clear up any confusion regarding Northern White Cedar and Eastern Red Cedar – they are completely different species, from different genus. Also, they typically grow in different habitats/growing conditions, although there can be much cross over.
There are similarities between the two species, as both Northern White Cedar and Eastern Red Cedar are evergreen, reach similar mature heights and spreads. Also, they both are excellent choices for attracting birds to your yard.
But there are some notable differences, namely that while they both do well in medium-moist well draining soil, Eastern Red Cedar is more tolerant of dry sites while Northern White Cedar does better in moist sites. Eastern Red Cedar benefits more insects than Northern White Cedar as well.
Comparing Northern White Cedar and Eastern Red Cedar
|Characteristic||Northern White Cedar||Eastern Red Cedar|
|Scientific Name||Thuja occidentalis||Juniperus virginiana|
|Spread / Width||10-15′||8-25′|
|Shape||Pyramidal||Coinical, ovoid, or oblongoid|
|Leaf||Small scale-like leaves, 1/16″ to 1/4″ long.||Scale shaped leaves, 1/16″-1/8″ long|
|Bark||Gray, or red-gray. Rough but vertically divided.||Gray, fibrous, comes off in strips|
|Fruit||Small cones containing several seeds||Small blue berries containing several seeds|
|Typical Habitat||Along waterways, near swamps/bogs. Or in some cases on limestone bluffs||Slopes, limestone bluffs, hillsides, upland woods|
|Growing Conditions||Full sun / partial shade. Moist to medium-moist soil||Full sun / partial shade. Medium-moist to dry soil|
How to Grow Northern White Cedar from Seed
To germinate Northern White Cedar seeds, seed should be collected from the source directly. And then stored in a sealed plastic container in the refrigerator until Winter. At which point, the seed should be winter sown.
To break dormancy, a few months of cold stratification is necessary.   This can be accomplished via direct sowing, Winter Sowing, or cold stratification using the refrigerator. The planting depth for Northern White Cedar Seeds is shallow, no more than 1/8″ deep (3 mm).
Germination may not occur until temperatures get quite warm, around 80-85F. This means that seed may not germinate until June or July, so one must be patient.
Direct Sowing Northern White Cedar Seed
To direct sow, first prepare a seed bed by having some disturbed soil. Then just scatter and lightly cover seed in the Fall. Cover the seed with straw mulch to help ensure it stays on the ground, and walk over it to ensure good contact with soil.
Wildlife, Insects, and Diseases associated with Northern White Cedar
There are approximately 20 different insects that make use of the Northern White Cedar Tree. Carpenter ants will make homes inside the interior parts of the trunk that rot. Several moth larvae feed on the leaves  . And numerous other beetles, borers, and even some aphids and mites. Although the damage from these insects is often unnoticed or insignificant.
There are two types of insect that will cause the most damage to Northern White Cedar / Arborvitiae – Carpenter Ants and Leaf Miners. The Black Carpenter Ant and Red Carpenter Ant eat rotting heartwood, carving out their nests inside. This severely damages the value of the standing timber, but may not be as large a concern for someone making a windbreak or tree hedge. 
Damage to the foliage can come from the Brown Arborvitae Leafminer, Coleotechnites thujaella. It can cause scorching of foliage through it’s feeding.
In addition to Carpenter Ants and leafminers, damage to ornamental White Cedar Arborvitae can occur from bagworm, juniper scale, and spruce spider mites. 
Northern White Cedar is preferred foliage of White-tailed Deer.  They will significantly ‘prune’ this tree particularly in Winter when other food is scarce. I strongly advise you to drape bird netting over your trees to protect them.
As you can see from my ‘row’ of trees, the one on the end has been pruned by White Tail Deer over the years. This mainly happens in Winter, when other food is scarce.
Simple bird netting or invisible deer fence will deter deer from eating the trees, as will liquid fence. You can find a link to Liquid Fence (it really works) at our recommended products page.
Porcupines can sometimes girdle and kill trees. But if nothing else, porcupine presence will often result in heavy browsing damage or possible topping of trunks or branches. 
Dogs, Cats, Livestock
The leaves of Northern White Cedar contain toxic compounds (thujones) that are toxic to dogs, cats, horses, and other livestock.   So, should a dog or cat chew on the leaves, particularly the tips, they could be poisoned.
Just bear in mind that Northern White Cedar and all the hundreds of cultivars of Arborvitae are some of the most popular landscaping trees in North America. Even with our large dog population. So, it appears that the browsing of these plants may be somewhat limited.
Rabbits will browse lower foliage on younger trees and saplings, particularly the Snowshoe Hare  . Also, red squirrels will eat seeds by snapping or clipping off branches with many cones, and thus reducing the supply of seed for birds or supply for cultivation. 
In addition to food, White Cedar provides cover for white-tailed deer and other wildlife. The evergreen boughs can provide insulation against the coldest winters as well as shelter in storms. 
Northern White Cedar will attract numerous birds for several different reasons. Grouse, Pine Siskin, Juncos, and Redpolls will eat seeds produced by Northern White Cedar. And many bird species will roost in the trees, as they provide excellent cover.  
For most homeowners this will not be a concern as long as you have planted your tree in it’s preferred growing conditions. As healthy trees are able to fend off most disease / fungi with their natural defenses.
But in general, Northern White Cedar isn’t at risk to disease. The primary risk is a snow-blight fungus in the Quebec province of Canada, Phacidium sp., which has caused significant damage to hedges and nurseries.  There are also several fungi that cause cosmetic foliar damage.
Root-rot and butt-rot fungus
Old or damaged trees are suceptible to root-rot fungus or butt-rot fungus. The main visible symptom of this fungi is woodpeckers making holes in the trunk. 
Where you can buy White Cedar
Northern White Cedar as a straight species is not typically sold in nurseries. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map. Also, this tree is frequently available as a bare root, which is about the cheapest way to obtain trees if you are buying multiple.
But there are over 100 cultivars of Northern White Cedar available. And when I say available, I mean you can find them in any garden center that has trees under some form of the name “Arborvitae”. Now, the cultivated varieties won’t be as beneficial to wildlife as the straight species. But they have been bred/made for specific growth characteristics.
Varieties of Northern White Cedar
Like many popular landscaping trees and plants, Northern White Cedar has had many cultivars made from selection or hybridization. There are over one hundred different cultivars available around the world, most names contain the word “Arborvitae”. If you have ever been to America, I can almost guarantee that you have seen these varieties even if you didn’t realize it.
These cultivars of White Cedar have different growth characteristics. Namely the size, shape or growth rate. Some, such as Emerald or Jolly whatever are grown for their perfect shape, dense foliage, or growth rate. Others such as ‘Danica’ are incredibly small and can be used as evergreen shrubs.
Top ten varieties of ‘Arborvitae’
|”Hetz Midget’||Dark Green||Sphere||4′||4′|
|‘Holmstrup’||Dark Green||Narrow Pyramid||8′||3′|
|‘Little Gem’||Dark Green||Elliptical Sphere||3′||4′|
|‘Nigra’||Dark Green||Slender Pyramid||25′||8′|
|‘Technny’||Dark Green||Wide Pyramid||10′||12′|
Uses of Northern White Cedar
Northern White Cedar lumber is primarily used as rustic fencing and posts. But additionally, it used for making log cabins, shingles, lumber, and poles. To a lesser extent Northern White Cedar lumber can be used in wooden pails, barrels, tubs, boats, and paneling.  
Also, the boughs of Northern White Cedar are frequently used in decorative Christmas garland.
Cedar leaf oil is made by distilling Northern White Cedar boughs and used medicinally and in perfumes.  As of today, you can purchase essential oils made from Northern White Cedar. The primary uses for Cedar leaf Oil are for the aroma, aromatherapy, and also to keep bugs out of furniture/dressers. It can also be used to renew the scent of cedar in trunks or other cedar furniture.
Northern White Cedar is one of the most popular ornamental landscaping trees in the United States and Canada. The shapeliness of the tree and it’s evergreen leaves make it attractive as a specimen, hedge, or wind break. It’s adaptability, tolerance to different moisture conditions make it easy to grow in many suburban yards.
Other trees that grow well in similar conditions as White Cedar include Spruce, White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Tamarack Pine, Black Walnut, Swamp White Oak, and Red Maple. All of these trees can be found in similar growing conditions as White Cedar in the wild.
Ferns grow well near White Cedar, and can be planted around the tree, and eventually even grow underneath it, as most fern species are shade tolerant. Other shade loving plants would include Wild Ginger, Bloodroot, and Trout Lily.
Native American Uses of Northern White Cedar
The Native Americans had 89 documented uses of Northern White Cedar by eleven different tribes.  Note that while medicinal uses were documented with tribes, the leaves and possibly other parts of the tree contain toxic compounds.
- Decoction of branches taken for soreness/arthritis (rheumatism), to treat pneumonia, and as a first aid for cuts & bruises.
- The branches would be steamed to alleviate cold symptoms, to comfort women after childbirth, and to help relieve toothaches.
- A poultice of rotten wood would be applied to skin for fevers, rashes and irritations
- An infusion of cones could be used to treat colic
- Charcoal made from White Cedar would be rubbed/pricked into temples for headache relief
- A compound of leaves would be used to treat cough, as a syrup
- Sources:   
- Branches and trunks could be used to make baskets, canoe ribs/skeletons. Also, the bark was used as caulking for boats/canoes.
- Northern White Cedar wood was used to make spears for fishing
- The Chippewa would burn incense made from twigs of White Cedar
- The leaves could be rubbed on the skin as a deodorant, or as perfume for clothing
- Leaves were used to make a hot tea
- Branches could be added to trunks, closets to keep bugs away
- Sources:    
 – Johnston, William F. “Thuja occidentalis L. Northern white-cedar.” Silvics of North America 1 (1990): 580-589.
 – Nesom, Guy. Northern White Cedar. USDA NRCS. September, 2000. Accessed 05FEB2022.
 – Johnston, William F., Matti Juhani Hyvarinen, and Harold Scofield Betts. “Northern white-cedar.” (1979).
 – Curtis, James D. “Preliminary observations on northern white cedar in Maine.” Ecology 27.1 (1946): 23-36.
 – Petraborg, Walter H. “Regeneration of white cedar in northern swamps.” Journal of the Minnesota Academy of Science 36.1 (1969): 20-22.
 – Heinselman, Miron L. “Landscape evolution, peatland types, and the environment in the Lake Agassiz Peatlands Natural Area, Minnesota.” Ecological monographs 40.2 (1970): 235-261.
 – Grigal, D. F., and Lewis F. Ohmann. “Classification, description, and dynamics of upland plant communities within a Minnesota wilderness area.” Ecological Monographs 45.4 (1975): 389-407.
 – Curtis, John T. “The Vegetation of Wisconsin: An Ordination of Plant Communities.” (1959).
 – Jokela, J. J., and C. L. Cyr. “Performance of northern white-cedar in central Illinois.” (1977). Accessed 04FEB2022
 – Rose, Arthur H., O. H. Lindquist, and Kathryn L. Nystrom. Insects of eastern larch, cedar and juniper. Department of the Environment, Canadian Forestry Service, 1980.
 – Sakai, A. “Mechanism of desiccation damage of conifers wintering in soil‐frozen areas.” Ecology 51.4 (1970): 657-664.
 – Foster, A. C., and M. A. Maun. “Effects of highway deicing agents on Thuja occidentalis in a greenhouse.” Canadian Journal of Botany 56.21 (1978): 2760-2766.
 – Sucoff, Edward. “Effect of deicing salts on woody vegetation along Minnesota roads.” (1975).
 – Dubey, S. K., and A. Batra. “Acute and sub acute toxicity studies on ethanolic fraction of Thuja occidentalis Linn.” Research Journal of Pharmacy and Technology 1.3 (2008): 245-248. Accessed 06FEB2022
 – Parra, A. Lagarto, et al. “Comparative study of the assay of Artemia salina L. and the estimate of the medium lethal dose (LD50 value) in mice, to determine oral acute toxicity of plant extracts.” Phytomedicine 8.5 (2001): 395-400.
 – Radulović, Niko S., et al. “Toxic essential oils. Part V: Behaviour modulating and toxic properties of thujones and thujone-containing essential oils of Salvia officinalis L., Artemisia absinthium L., Thuja occidentalis L. and Tanacetum vulgare L.” Food and Chemical Toxicology 105 (2017): 355-369.
- Naser, Belal, et al. “Thuja occidentalis (Arbor vitae): a review of its pharmaceutical, pharmacological and clinical properties.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine 2.1 (2005): 69-78. accessed 06FEB2022
 – Kern, Christel, et al. “Development of the selection system in northern hardwood forests of the Lake States: An 80-year silviculture research legacy.” USDA Forest Service experimental forests and ranges. Springer, New York, NY, 2014. 201-223.
 – Schopmeyer, Clifford Scharff. “Seeds of woody plants in the United States.” Seeds of woody plants in the United States. 450 (1974).
 – Maier, Christ T. et al. Caterpillars On The Foliage Of Conifers In The Northeastern United States. United States Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team. 2004
 – Recurvaria thujaella, Journal of the New York Entomological Society. Volume XI. 1903.pp 154
 – Jeffers, Richard M. “Survival and height growth of northern white-cedar from 18 provenances.” (1976).
 – Wilde, S. A., and D. E. Spyridakis. “Hydroponics as a Medium for Production of Tree Planting Stock.” (1967).
 – Cornett, Meredith W., et al. “Conservation implications of browsing by Odocoileus virginianus in remnant upland Thuja occidentalis forests.” Biological Conservation 93.3 (2000): 359-369. Accessed 05FEB2022
 – Verme, Louis J. “Swamp conifer deeryards in northern Michigan their ecology and management.” Journal of Forestry 63.7 (1965): 523-529.
Walski, Theodore W., and William W. Mautz. “Nutritional evaluation of three winter browse species of snowshoe hares.” The Journal of Wildlife Management (1977): 144-147.
 – Dawson, Deanna K. “Bird communities associated with succession and management of lowland conifer forests.” Management of north central and northeastern forests for nongame birds: workshop proceedings. 1979. Accessed 04FEB2022
 – Thuja occidentalis. North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 05FEB2022.
 – BLACK, MEREDITH JEAN. Algonquin Ethnobotany: An Interpretation of Aboriginal Adaptation in Southwestern Quebec. University of Ottawa Press, 1980, pp130.
https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv16v23. Accessed 05FEB2022
 – Densmore, Frances. “Uses of plants by the Chippewa Indians. Forty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1926–1927.” (1928).
 – Leighton, Anna L., and Anna L. Leighton. “Wild plant use by the Woods Cree (Nihithawak) of east-central Saskatchewan.” (1985): pp. 62
 – RAYMOND, MARCEL. “ETUDES ETHNOBOTANIQUES QUÉBÉCOISES.“. Accessed 05FEB2022
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