Cedar trees are among the Pacific Northwest’s most visible trees, and there are many different kinds you can find while on a hike in our misty forests. There may be a misnomer in the cedar trees in the Pacific Northwest. The only true cedar trees are native to the Mediterranean and Himalayan regions. All of the cedars in the US are actually false cedars.
True cedars have evergreen needles on small, woody spur shoots similar to the larch tree. The needles are usually in dense clusters, and their cones are large and sit upright on their branches, and they fall apart when the seeds are ripe, in the same way cones on true firs do.
False cedars instead have scaly foliage that overlaps itself and small cones. The seeds might fall, but the cones will stay on the trees long after. The only similarity both true and false cedars have is aromatic wood of a reddish color.
Cedars are characterized by their aromatic and resinous wood, and their pyramidal or conical shape. The bark is usually reddish and has a peeling or shredded texture, aligned in vertical rows. They are coniferous trees and stay green year-round. There are many different kinds of cedar trees you can find in Oregon in particular. Here are three of our favorites:
Western Red Cedar
Also known as the red cedar, Pacific red cedar, and giant cedar, the western red cedar prefers shady, cool, moist habitats. You’ll find them growing thickest along streams and riverbeds, bogs, and wetlands, and they usually grow with mixed conifers around them.
There’s a good reason one of their names is giant cedar: they can grow to great heights. The Oregon champion in Clackamas county is 187 feet tall and about 11 feet in diameter. Washington State had the prize for the largest-known red cedar in the world. It was called the Quinault Giant and stood proudly at 174 feet tall, with a diameter of 19.5 feet until a heavy windstorm in 2016 brought it down. It had a canopy spread of 45 feet.
Western red cedar is also known for having wood that is resistant to rot. That’s one reason so many building materials are made of cedar today, such as siding and shingles, even boats, outdoor decking, and fence posts. Even the foliage is rendered into oils used in modern pesticides and perfumes. The local native tribes used this wood for building everything from ceremonial headdresses and rattles to wooden storage boxes, dishes, houses, and canoes. The bark, both inner and outer, was used to make clothing and baskets. Medicine was made of its foliage to cure rheumatism, colds, and venereal sores. They chewed branch tips like chewing gum as a way to combat nausea.
This cedar is widely spread from the panhandle of Alaska down through Canada, along the coast, and throughout the western United States.
Port Orford Cedar
This cedar is less widely spread than the western red cedar and will also go by the name Lawson cypress. First named by Euro-Americans near Port Orford in Oregon, they began cultivating it in 1854. You’ll find it mostly closer to the coast of Oregon from about the middle of the state down through northwestern California. This tree changes a bit in color, but not from year-to-year—when young, it will be blue-green, and it will turn brown as it matures. It also prefers to grow near water, along streams in particular.
Port Orford cedar also grow very tall, and the diameter of their trunks can reach four to seven feet wide. The foliage is feathery with flat sprays. While these leaves are scale-like in appearance, they also have a distinctive white X marking on the underside of the leaves. Not only will the wood be aromatic (more gingery than other kinds), but the foliage has its own scent, which some people describe as being similar to parsley. The wood of this cedar is lighter than most, while still showing the characteristics of resistance to rot and weathering. The grain of the Port Orford cedar is unusually straight, so it is known as the preferred wood for the manufacture of arrow shafts and the soundboards of guitars.
Since these trees grow to be so large, it’s hard to know how long they live. Someone once reported a stump of a Port Orford cedar that had 1,755 rings.
This cedar goes by many other names: Nootka cypress, yellow cypress, Alaska cypress, Nootka cedar, yellow cedar, Alaska cedar, and Alaska yellow cedar. Nootka refers to the native tribes who lived on Vancouver Island and in British Columbia, now known as the Nuu-chah-nulth people. You can find Alaska cedar along the Pacific coast from Oregon, through Canada, up to Alaska, but not much farther south than Oregon.
The needles of an Alaska cedar have the same scale-like shape as other false cedars but will have flaring tips and no pattern on the undersides. The bark of this tree will be more gray than red and will often pull away from the trunk in long strips. While it also likes cool, humid climates like the western red and Port Orford, this cedar can grow at higher elevations as well. When it grows in the 1,900–8,200-foot range above sea level, it’ll grow as a shrub instead of a tree. This will keep the need for nutrients and water relatively low so that it can conserve energy in the greater cold.
With recent climate changes, the Alaska cedar has experienced large-scale die-offs. It turns out that this cedar relies on heavy snowpack in order to protect its roots from the cold. With less snow, the trees’ protection is too shallow, and more often, they don’t survive the winter. As the climate warms, we can expect to see more future mortality of the Alaska cedar. It may be listed as threatened or endangered, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
We love trees at Mr. Tree Service, and while it may not be possible to plant a four-foot diameter cedar in your yard, we’d love to tell you about other smaller trees that would be a good fit for you! Contact us today if you have questions about what trees to plant in your yard or which native trees work best for your home.