The Majestic Western Redcedar: British Columbia’s Signature Tree

The western redcedar is an icon of British Columbia’s coastal rainforests. This massive, long-lived tree can reach up to 70 meters (230 feet) tall and live for over 1,000 years. Its dense, rot-resistant wood has been prized by First Nations peoples for centuries for constructing houses, totem poles, canoes, and other items. Today, the western redcedar remains an integral part of BC’s forest industry as well as an enduring symbol of the province’s natural heritage.

The western redcedar, also known as Thuja plicata, grows along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. In BC’s coastal rainforests, ideal conditions of heavy precipitation, mild winters, and rich soils allow the western redcedar to flourish. The tree’s needles are scale-like leaves that lie flat against the branches. Its small cones have soft, flexible scales and long, winged seeds. The western redcedar has an aromatic, reddish-brown wood that is naturally resistant to decay.

For First Nations peoples, the western redcedar was known as the “Tree of Life” for its many uses. The rot-proof wood was ideal for constructing shelter and seafaring canoes that could last over 50 years. Bentwood boxes, masks, and totem poles were also carved from redcedar wood. Bark was woven into baskets, mats, and clothing. Boughs were used for bedding, flooring, and roofing. Some First Nations groups even used extracts from the tree for medicinal purposes.

Today, the western redcedar remains an important timber tree. Its high-value wood is coveted for use as outdoor decking, siding, shingles, and fencing due to its natural decay resistance and attractive appearance. However, old-growth redcedar stands have been heavily logged in many areas. Some remaining tracts are now protected in parks like Carmanah Walbran and Cathedral Grove, which contain walking trails to view these ancient giants.

The western redcedar has enduring cultural significance in British Columbia. Its iconic silhouette adorns the provincial flag and coat of arms. Many places in BC are named after the tree, like Red Mountain near Rossland and Cedar Lake on Vancouver Island. The western redcedar’s natural longevity and weather-resistant wood have allowed historic redcedar artifacts like Haida houses and Kwakwaka’wakw totem poles to withstand the test of time.

From an ecological perspective, the western redcedar acts as a foundation tree species in coastal BC rainforests. Its evergreen branches provide cover and nesting sites for birds. When mature trees die and decay, they release nutrients back to the forest floor to feed new growth. Efforts to protect remaining old-growth redcedar stands aim to conserve this habitat and maintain an important symbiotic relationship that has existed in BC’s coastal rainforests for centuries.

The western redcedar has an enduring connection to the landscape, culture, and heritage of British Columbia. This magnificent, long-lived tree rightly deserves its status as a signature symbol of BC’s coastal rainforests. Its conservation helps preserve an iconic part of BC’s natural history and identity.

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