By Dave Schroeder
Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), also called white-cedar or swamp cedar, is usually found growing in fairly dense stands in swamps, bogs and, occasionally along streams. Its range is along the Atlantic coast in a belt, 50 to 150 miles wide, from Maine to Florida . Heavy commercial cutting over the last century coupled with the conversion of swamps to agriculture has greatly reduced the amount of white-cedar over much of its range. In Connecticut , there are still some fairly large stands, several of which have been protected from further exploitation. The areas where stands of white cedar have disappeared because of changes in water levels or heavy exploitation are still known in some towns as cedar swamp. Even in places where the white cedar is protected, there are concerns about regenerating the stand as trees reach old age or start to deteriorate. White-cedar, which is intermediate in tolerance to shade, can compete successfully with shrubs and hardwoods only in clearcuts or areas opened up by fire.
When growing in dense stands, white-cedar has a perfectly straight trunk that remains clear of branches for up to 2/3-3/4 of its height. Leaves are scaly, up to 1/8 inch long and keel shaped. New growth, which is blue green, turns brownish the second year but may persist on the tree for several years. Cones are very small (1/8 inch or less), blue when mature and look like miniature soccer balls. The bark of white-cedar is gray to reddish brown, thin and fibrous. In southern New England mature white-cedars seldom exceed 60 ft. in height and 16" d.b.h. Trees growing to a height of 120 ft. have been reported in North Carolina . White-cedar characteristically grows in pure stands, but occasionally red maple, black gum and hemlock are seen growing with it.
White-cedar is very decay resistant and it did not take the early settlers long to put it to good use for shingles, log houses, piles, poles, posts, barrel staves, floors of houses and barns, and small boats. Charcoal from the tree was used to make gunpowder during the Revolutionary War. The lightweight wood is straight grained and easy to work. Although very little white-cedar wood makes it to market today, it is still used locally for posts, shingles and small boats. White-tailed deer occasionally browse the foliage, however; the tree has limited value for wildlife.
White-cedar has very few insect and disease problems. It is thin barked and thus susceptible to injury from fire on the rare occasion when the swamp dries. However, fire will probably be a useful tool when it comes time to regenerate some stands. Because it is shallow rooted it is susceptible to wind throw, particularly when there is an opening in the stand such as might result from a partial cut. Small openings in a stand usually allow competing vegetation a chance to move in while a major blow-down would be favorable for regeneration of white-cedar.
This article originally appeared in the December 2002 ECFLA/WDLT Newsletter.