Nature Corner: Western Red Cedar

A Northwest Treasure for Millennia

For 8,000 years or more, the indigenous peoples of this region have honored the Western Red Cedar as the “Mother Tree”. Across the range of this venerable tree, from southeast Alaska and northern California to inland areas of lower British Columbia and northern Idaho, Native peoples have used, and continue to use, every part of the Western Red Cedar.

Western Red Cedar

The roots of the Western Red Cedar are sinewy and strong and can be braided into rope for lashing, or split into strands for weaving and basket-making. Cedar roots are difficult to dig out, so areas with soft or sandy soils, like the Fraser River with its high muddy banks, were sites of choice for the task.

Western Red Cedar wood was used to make nearly every necessity for daily life until the introduction of steel to the region. Cedar wood’s ability to split evenly, and its resistance to rot, made it the perfect material for homes and furniture, while carved cedar logs made swift and seaworthy canoes. Cedar wood was even fashioned into finely crafted boxes for interment of the dead. These boxes were often placed in trees to avoid desecration by wolves and other scavengers. One such graveyard was located on land that is now part of Lynden.

Western Red Cedar bark was also an indispensable material. Pulled carefully upward in long and wide strips from the living tree, it was then processed using techniques handed down from mother to daughter. Softened inner bark, or cambium, made skirts and capes and infant bedding. Outer bark made hats and baskets.

An excellent book on the many uses of cedar by the Salish people – available at the library – is “Cedar: tree of life to the Northwest Coast Indians”, by Hilary Stewart. It is replete with fascinating photographs and line drawings of the myriad ways Western Red Cedar was, and still is, used by Native peoples.

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) occupies a unique and vital place in our region’s ecosystem. Along with Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) it comprises the climax forest of the Pacific Northwest, which can take over 300 years to develop. Sadly, these forests are now rare, but a living example can be found on the Baker River Trail, an easy and level trail, beginning at the headwaters of Baker Lake. 

Mature Western Red Cedars provide habitat for diverse animals and plants. Bare branches at the crown provide perches for raptors such as bald eagles and osprey. Cavities in the trunk and near the roots provide dens for flying squirrel, bear, bobcat and other mammals and birds. Ferns, salal and salmonberry grow beneath the tree.

And in death, the cedar snag stands for a hundred years, a sentinel for wildlife and a striking figure on the landscape.

Virginia Naef is a contributing writer for Whatcom Million Trees Project. She has worn many hats, from construction laborer to wildlife biologist to laboratory technologist. But her greatest love is conservation biology. She has completed field studies on dam mitigation and river restoration for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and hatchery mitigation and fish habitat relationships in the South Fork Nooksack for the Lummi Tribe. Her Master’s Thesis through Huxley College is on the susceptibility of forest avifauna to nest predation in varying Northwestern landscapes.

Although retired, Virginia stays very busy on her 15 acre farm in Acme, as well as participating on the Boards of the Deming Friends of the Library and the Northwest All-Breed Goat Club. By helping the Whatcom Million Trees Project, she looks forward to bringing more trees to our beautiful region and to protecting the ones that are already here.

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