Skip to main content

Season of Trees: Get to know the 'Tree of Life'

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is all about trees.  We would like to introduce you to one of our favorites, though you have certainly met it before.  From its tall, wild form, to the new introductions the size of beach balls, you are certain to find a white cedar to fit your space and your needs.  

Plus, we’ll show you a group you can find at the Arboretum the next time you’re here!

White Cedar

White cedar (Thuja occidentalis), also called eastern arborvitae or American arborvitae, is a small, slow- to medium-growing evergreen conifer.  It is commonly grown as a tree or shrub, depending on the variety, and is native to the eastern half of North America, from Manitoba to North Carolina.

In its native range, it is found in bogs, ravines, and other areas with high humidity and soil moisture levels, which is perfect for the higher levels of rainfall Minnesota has recently seen. 

What is white cedar?

  • Evergreen conifer, scale-like leaves remain throughout the year.
  • Height: 3 to 50 feet, depending on the cultivated variety.
  • Width: 3 to 15 feet, depending on the cultivated variety.
  • Habit: also varies depending on variety.  Can be pyramidal, narrow and upright, or globular.
  • Leaves: usually deep green, scale-like, and fragrant when brushed or cut.
  • Cones: oblong, ⅓ inch to ½ inch long.  Upright and yellow when young, downward and brown when mature. 

Best growing conditions

Arborvitae prefer well-drained, loam soil, and tolerate a wide range of acid or alkaline conditions.  Once established, it can tolerate heat and drought, but can be damaged by wind and heavy snow.

In the landscape, it is highly favored as a specimen plant or as a hedge, as it is well-suited to shearing and pruning.  It grows best in full sun, but can become sparse and thinned out in shadier locations.
  • Hardiness zone: 3 to 7, not suited to hotter climates. 
  • Does best in full sun, becomes sparse in part shade
  • Tolerates short-term flooding
  • Tolerates mild drought once established
  • Susceptible to wind or heavy snow damage
  • Some varieties experience winter burn
Recommended soil:
  • Soil pH: tolerant of 5.0 to 8.0, best in 6.8 to 7.2
  • Loam soils, can tolerate limestone
  • Moist, well-drained
Have your soil tested by the U of M Soil Testing Lab.

A 'Tree of Life'

Arbor-vitae is Latin for, “tree of life.”  Native Americans have used the bark, foliage, and young twigs for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.  The wood was also used to build canoes due to its water and pest repelling properties.  

It is thought to be the first North American tree to be introduced to Europe, and was grown at the Château de Fontainebleau near Paris, France in 1536.
Birds use white cedar for shelter and food.

White cedar is endangered in Indiana, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, and is threatened in Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, and Maryland.  As temperatures increase and rainfall becomes more sporadic, its range is expected to shift northward.  This will likely happen to other coniferous evergreens that are suited to cooler, wetter conditions.

Common Problems

While mostly pest free, carpenter ants can feed on the heartwood, and pileated woodpeckers, in turn, feed on the ants.  
Watch out for deer!  They love to eat the foliage during winter months when food is scarce.  Fencing or netting offer the best protection, while taste and scent repellents can help.  
Bagworms can also cause defoliation if not removed in a timely manner.  Look for varieties resistant to winter burn.
Visit "What's Wrong with My Plant?" for a list of the most common problems in Minnesota.

Cultivated varieties of white cedar for Minnesota

Cultivated varieties are selected for size, color, and performance in Minnesota. We recommend buying from local nurseries, as Minnesota-grown plants are already adapted to our climate and soils, require less transportation and fuel costs, and are unlikely to introduce or spread invasive species from other parts of the country.
  • ‘Techny’ - This widely-grown variety is 12-15 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide. With dark foliage, it works well for tall screens or hedges.
  • ‘Degroot’s Spire’ - Slow-growing, requiring minimal trimming, this dark green columnar variety is great for narrow spaces. 10-12 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide.
  • ‘Sunkist’ - A yellow-leaf variety on a broad, pyramidal plant. 10 to 15 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide.
The above varieties are listed in the Plant Information Online Database, which offers plant and seed sources throughout North America.

Our favorite Arborvitae at the Arb

Located just east of Three Mile Walk, across from the Iris Collection, this White Cedar group tipped over and began showing off its interesting root structure, which is difficult to see after the deciduous leaves fall to the ground. 

Its proximity to Green Heron Pond and the East Side Trail System allows for excellent birdwatching.
Author: Erin Buchholz, Integrated Pest Management Specialist, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum


Erin Buchholz, MN Landscape Arboretum
Editor’s note: We’re adding a new series to the Y&G News called “Season of Trees” that we hope you’ll enjoy! We’ll tell you all about a specific tree, what varieties do well in Minnesota and how to grow them. In 2020, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum celebrates the “Season of Trees: Returning to our Roots” which will highlight the beauty and benefits of trees in our communities. Our guest writer for this series is Erin Buchholz from the Arboretum. Erin earned her bachelor's degree in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota. She has worked in nonprofits and public gardens for over 15 years, and worked as an elementary school teacher for five years while earning her master's degree in education.

She has returned to her love of connecting people to plants as the IPM (Integrated Pest Management) Specialist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Combining horticulture with education, she teaches staff and visitors how to use IPM to keep plants (and people) healthy.

--Gail Hudson, Y& G News Editor

Print Friendly and PDF