thuja-plicataCommon name: Western redcedar

Scientific name: Thuja plicata

Native American names: nunk (Cowlitz), t’ci.tum (Quinault), xatca’tci (Klullam), xaxpai’’ats (Skagit), t’sa’pis (Quileute), xepai’its (Snohomish) [1]

Plant family: Cupressaceae

Description: Thuja plicata is a large evergreen tree growing up to 150- 200 ft. tall and 15 – 20 ft. in diameter, with a conical to irregular crown and many leaders. Leaves are scale like, opposite, in alternating pairs.  They are glossy green above, and white stripped on the lower surface.[2][3]  The bark is grey to reddish brown and is often deeply creased on the trunk.[4][3] Seed cones grow in loose clusters, are egg shaped, about 1 cm long, with 8-12 scales, green when immature, becoming brown and woody when mature.[3]

Habitat and range: Thuja plicata is found in two areas; the Coast-Cascade Range which reaches from southeastern Alaska to northwestern California, and the Rocky Mountain segment which stretches from British Colombia and Alberta to Montana and Idaho.[2]

Western redcedar likes to grow in moist mixed conifer forests, forested swamps, poorly-drained lowlands, and riparian areas, however it can also grow on dry or rocky slopes.[3]

Historical and contemporary uses: Western redcedar is one of the cornerstone plants of coastal Native American culture. The tree provided fiber and material for everything from houses, to clothes, to tools.  Some of the names given to it by coastal tribes mean “tree of life”, or “life giver”.[4]

Native American coastal tribes use the fiber of the bark to make clothing, baskets, blankets, mats, padding for infant cradles, sanitary pads, and rope.  The inner bark was used as a slow match to carry fire from camp to camp.[5]

The wood was also an important resource.  It was used to make lodges in the form of lash-house timbers, planks, posts, and roof boards.  Other uses include arrow and spear shafts, bowls, bent cedar boxes, and totem poles.  Finally, trunks were used to make canoes, which were an important form of transportation for Pacific Northwest tribes.[3][4][5]

Today Thuja plicata is an important timber species.  The wood is light and very durable and is popular for shingling, fences, decks, and outdoor furniture.[2][4]

[1] Gunther, E. (1945). Ethnobotany of Western Washington; The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

[2] USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program (2002). Western Red Cedar Plant Guide. Retrieved on Nov. 6, 2011 from <>

[3] Pojar, J., & MacKinnon, A. (2004). Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast;Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Vancouver: Lone Pine Publishing.

[4] Chase, J. (2008). Western Redcedar, “Tree of Life”. Oregon Department of Forestry. Retrieved on November 6, 2011 from

[5] Plants for a Future. Thuja plicata. Retrieved on Nov. 6, 2011 from,