Thuja Plicata, or most commonly knows as the Western Red Cedar with its reputation for being aromatic, strong, and durable, has found its way through many uses like construction, boatbuilding, outdoor furniture, and even guitar soundboards. Long before it being used in modern construction, the Western Red Cedar has played a huge role in the lives of Native Americans, calling it the Tree of Life.
Thuja Plicata is native to the western part of North America but has been introduced to other temperate climate countries like Australia and New Zealand. It is a very large tree that has a distinct aroma and despite the name, it really isn’t cedar and is instead a type of Cypress. The tree produces its own thujaplicin, a chemical substance which is known to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. It’s also said to be an anti-oxidant. This along with the wood being resistant to rain and salt-water are the qualities that made its lumber widely used for construction.
Native Americans valued the tree for the same qualities calling it the Tree of Life or Long Life Maker with some tribes dubbing themselves as People of the Red Cedar. They used the tree to create houses, totem poles, canoes, and even weapons. Its roots and bark were used for making baskets, ropes, and clothing and its flexible branches were used as fishing lines.
Among the Coast Salish people, legend has it that there was once a generous man who gave everything the people needed. The Great Spirit saw this and promised the people that when this kind-hearted man died, a red cedar tree will grow where he is buried continuing to provide everything the people needed.
Wood. The indigenous people would always perform a type of ceremony to appease the tree spirits before they harvested the tree. Taking the tree down, before the introduction and invention of modern tools, was a difficult and time-consuming task. The process took days to complete. Even after the tree has fallen, it still has to be dragged to the shore or to the village depending on where it’s going to be used. Many red cedar trees are still obtained in this manner to follow and respect the art of felling that the indigenous people came up with.
For canoes, the tree would be divided into different sections and worked roughly into a canoe shape. For totem poles, the tree would be dragged to the village and again divided into sections. For planks used for housing or furniture like outdoor benches or beds, instead of cutting down the entire tree, the bark is stripped instead and cuts will be made at the end of the planking and slowly split from the sides of the tree. As red cedar is resistant to decay, the tree continues to live and grow well even when the bark is stripped and cuts have been made.
The branches of the tree are used as fishing lines, rope, and twine due to its flexibility, and while some indigenous people prefer to use modern fiber and nylon, there are still some who value the worth of the red cedar branches and continue to use it in their everyday lives.
Bark. The bark of the red cedar tree produces mats, ropes, baskets, clothing, and other soft items. The people take great care in harvesting bark because the tree dies when the bark is completely stripped. Evidence of bark stripping is seen in a lot of Culturally Modified Trees (CMT) in some parts of British Columbia in Canada.
Western Red Cedar isn’t allowed to be exported outside of the United States. It is also present in a lot of protected areas in national parks across the US and Canada.