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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Anderson

Atlantic White Cedar: At Home in the Bogs

Atlantic White Cedar forest
A spooky Halloween walk through a cedar forest? Maybe next year...

Happy day-after Halloween everyone, and if you have a swampy or low-lying area in need of a tree, try

it now its dark silhouette, narrow form and fine branching may be ready for ghoulish decor in time for next Halloween.

You’ll also be planting a tree that has suffered the last 200-plus years from over-harvesting and habitat loss.

With its shallow roots, Atlantic White Cedar, prefers coastal wetlands, where the water table is high and flooding occurs occasionally but not perpetually.

Excessive drainage of wetlands, for agriculture, roadways and settlements, in the last two centuries has taken most of the oldest trees (200 to sometimes 1,000 years old) and wiped out most of the old Atlantic White Cedar forests.

When the English settlers arrived, there was an estimated half-million acres of Atlantic White Cedar forest along the East Coast, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Atlantic White Cedar Initiative.

By the 1990s less than 50,000 acres remained, and subsequent hurricanes and fires are believed to have reduced the trees’ numbers to “well below estimates for the 1990s,” according to the initiative.

Chamaecyparis thyoides
Soft, blue-green foliage

Even with habitat restoration underway, these beautiful trees with their tall, straight trunks and soft blue-green foliage may never return to their glory days. But they do adapt well as lawn specimens for home landscapes, preferring low-lying areas and along streams and ponds.

Atlantic White Cedar grow to heights of 40 to 60 feet (rarely to 90 feet), gaining about one-and-a-half feet per year. With a spread of no more than 10 to 20 feet, they also are good for tight spaces.

They grow best in full sun, even as seedlings, and appreciate some wind protection. They make nice additions to butterfly, rain and pollinator gardens.

Atlantic White Cedar bears some physical resemblance to Thuja occidentalis, with its flattened scales, and also shares name recognition with Thuja, Northern White Cedar, which can cause confusion.

Chamaecyparis thyoides
Bark peeling on Atlantic White Cedar
Carya ovata
Shagbark Hickory. Photo by Kevin Faccenda

Atlantic White Cedar, however, distinguishes itself with reddish bark that, somewhat like Shagbark Hickory, exfoliates in long, vertical strips that look like they’re just waiting to be pulled off.

Atlantic White Cedar Forest Cape Cod
Atlantic White Cedar Forest, Cape Cod

Like most native plants,

Atlantic White Cedar lays out a picnic for pollinators with its yellow pollen-filed cones and red-yellow male flowers and green female flowers emerging in the spring. Notably, it is the sole larval host of the threatened Hessel’s Hairstreak, Callophrys hesseli. Hessel’s Hairstreak makes one flight in New England in late May and two more down south.

Atlantic White Cedar has a lovely cedar fragrance and provides cover for wildlife and is a winter food source for deer.

Fun facts Atlantic White Cedar was used to make gunpowder during the Revolutionary War. Its rot-resistant hardwood was once widely used for boats, posts and shingles.

Want to visit an Atlantic White Cedar forest? Try the 1.2-mile Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail at Cape Cod National Seashore. Maybe I’ll see you there next spring. :)


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