Montana Western Red Cedar, the Tree of Life

The Tree of Life – Western Red Cedar (Thuya plicata) is a major species which flourishes in northwestern Montana and because of its exceptional durability has become known as arbour-vitae ‘The Tree of Life’. Of Montana’s total land area (93 million acres), 17 coniferous tree species cover about 22.5 million acres. Of these 17 species, the Western Red Cedar stands out as the largest, oldest and perhaps the best of the many trees that grace Montana.

During winter in the high country of the Bitterroot Mountains, many feet of heavy snow blanket the land in white silence. Snow accumulations often exceed 20 feet. In years of heavy snow seasons, the spring melt is impressive. Creeks and streams are rapidly moving torrents that often undermine the roots and sometimes topple the giant forest trees. Western Red Cedars grow on hillsides in moist areas beside streams so are most often affected by high water run off.

In summer, huge cedar columns rise majestically out of a dense mat of lady fern. The dense canopy of trees allows filtered sunlight to penetrate the shadows, sweet, cool and moist, the air is as fresh as after a morning rain shower. In Montana Western Red Cedar is most abundant in the Bitterroot Mountains, the Mission Mountains and in the Seely-Swan area of the state. A day spent amongst the cedars is a delightful and memorable experience.

Western Red Cedar is one of the most important trees of the Pacific Northwest. Western Red Cedar grows from the coastal regions of southern Alaska south through the coastal ranges of British Columbia through western Washington and Oregon to California. In British Columbia, the species grows east to the western slope of the Continental Divide and thence south into the Selkirk and Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana.

Despite its name, the Western Red Cedar is not a cedar at all and the name pertains to the western distribution and cedar-like appearance. Western Red Cedar tree is actually a member of the Cypress family. When Western Red Cedar is approximately 250 years old it is about 100 to 175 feet tall and up to 8 feet in diameter. Western Red Cedar can live to more than 1000 years.

The leaves are small, overlapping scale-like that form sprays in opposite patterns; dark green in color. The Western Red Cedar produces 3/4″ inch brown cones. The tree’s bark is cinnamon-red on young stems and a silvered-gray on old trunks. The bark is fibrous and shedding. The tender leaves of young cedar are an important food source for deer and elk.

Western Red Cedar has been called the cornerstone of the northwest Indian culture. Few other trees have had such an impact and the tree has an extensive history of use by the indigenous people of North America.

No one can say with any certainty when Native Americans first began working with cedar. Archaeological evidence unearthed in British Columbia suggests that it may have been over 5,000 years ago. Its straight grain, workability and resistance to decay were significant assets in the wet and variable climate of the Pacific Northwest.

Red cedar wood was used to make poles, houses, masks, helmets, armor, boxes, utensils, tools and many other art and utility objects. Coastal tribes used more cedar items than the interior tribes of Washington, Idaho and Montana as they used fallen trees to build giant canoes and totem poles.

Red Cedar branches are very pliable and have great tensile strength. The red-colored bark of the Western Red Cedar was easily removed from live trees in long, thin strips. These strips were dried and beaten until soft and spun into yarn. From this fiber weavers created clothing, blankets, baskets, rope and nets. Branches and roots were also used in basket making and for heavier-strength cordage.

The harvesting of bark was performed with the greatest of care because if the tree was completely stripped it would die. To prevent this, the harvester would only strip bark from trees which had not been stripped before.

After harvesting, the tree was not used for bark again. The process of stripping the bark was usually started with a series of small cuts at the base of the tree and the bark was peeled upwards.

To remove bark high up, a pair of platforms strung on rope around the tree were used and the harvester climbed the tree by alternating between them for support. Since red cedars lose their lower branches as all tall trees do, the harvester may climb many feet up into the tree by this method. The harvested bark could be stored for quite some time as mold does not grow on it. The bark strips were moistened before unfolding and working. It was then split lengthwise into the required width and woven or twisted into shape.

Bark harvesting was mostly done by women of the tribe despite the danger of climbing many feet in the air, because they were the primary makers of bark goods. Today bark rope making is a lost art in many communities, although it is still practiced for decoration or used as an art media by many tribal artists.

Harvesting red cedars required elaborate ceremonies and included propitiation of the tree’s spirits as well as those of the surrounding trees. In particular, many people specifically requested the tree and its brethren not to fall or drop heavy branches on the harvester. Some professional loggers of Native American descent have mentioned that they offer silent prayers to trees which they fell, following in this tradition.

Medicinal Uses ~ Western Red Cedar

Native American tribes used the twigs, roots, bark and leaves and leaf buds of red cedar to treat a wide variety of different symptoms.

Internal uses include:

boiling limbs to make a tuberculosis treatment

chewing leaf buds for lung ailments

boiling leaves to make a cold and cough remedy

chewing leaf buds to relieve symptoms of toothache pain

making an infusion to treat stomach pain and dysentery

making a bark infusion to treat urinary discomfort

making an infusion of the seeds to treat fever using a weak infusion

internally to treat rheumatism and arthritis

External uses include:

making a decoction of leaves to treat rheumatism

washing with an infusion of twigs to treat venereal disease

making a poultice of boughs or oil to treat rheumatism

making a poultice of boughs or oil to threat bronchitis

oil from inner bark to treat skin rashes, fungal infections and warts

using shredded bark to cauterize and prevent infection in wounds

Along with sweetgrass and sage, Western Red Cedar was used in smudges to purify and cleanse. The essential oil of the aromatic cedar is used today as a significant ingredient in incense, candles and air fresheners.

Green Building

For centuries artisans and builders have valued Western Red Cedar for its natural beauty, durability, strength and aroma. Unfinished cedar has richly textured grain with colors ranging from rich sienna browns, mellow ambers and reddish cinnamons. Its warm coloring is complimented by a uniform, fine-grained texture and is virtually resin and pitch free.

Western Red Cedar’s unique aroma comes from naturally occurring thujaplicins in its heartwood. These compounds resist moisture and are toxic to decay-causing fungi or mold and resists invading insects. Thujaplicins preserve the wood and prevents rot. The distinctive characteristic of Western Red Cedar, its natural durability, has preserved examples of native culture for more than a 100 years.

Western Red Cedar is a naturally occurring and renewable building material that comes from a sustainable resource. Cedar is an environmentally friendly choice for green building. Promote climate change and choose cedar for your next building project.

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