The Atlantic White Cedar
Check out this swamp dweller that has great potential for landscape use.
Robert H. Mohlenbrock. USDA NRCS. 1995. Northeast wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. Northeast National Technical Center, Chester. Courtesy of USDA NRCS Wetland Science Institute
White cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) is a good starting point for conifer gardens. As an American native it is suitable for landscapes in much of the country. Its numerous varieties and cultivars diverge greatly in appearance from the wild parent, offering a variety of colors and textures to make it a perfect fit.
Atlantic white cedar (a.k.a. white cedar false cypress, swamp cedar, post cedar) is a medium sized evergreen tree, growing forty to fifty feet tall and fifteen to twenty feet wide. The foliage is blue-green “needles” more similar to the flat, spiky or braided foliage of juniper, arborvitae or the other members of its false cypress genus, than to the true cedars. The flowers are small and rather inconspicuous, the cones are a quarter of an inch across and ripen to a bluish purple. White cedar is useful in wet areas, as it is a native of freshwater swamps, but does not require that type of environment. Given the many forms available, there is a variety that could be used for nearly any landscape conifer application. It is hardy in zones 4-8.
White cedar is one of the more confusing common names. It is not a cedar, and in fact the members of its genus, chamaecyparis, are also commonly known as the false cypresses. So they aren’t cypresses either. Also, it should not be confused with northern white cedar, because that plant is in the thuja genus, and looks dissimilar to this one. This particular plant seems to be known by several names that describe what it is not, but no common name is given to tell what it is. Calling it by its botanical name (see above) seems the only way to clear up the confusion.
Atlantic white cedar is native to east coast swamps from Maine to Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. During the historic heyday of American lumbering, it may have been one of the most important trees outside the northern pine forests. Lumped in with arborvitae and juniper, it was cut and sold as “cedar.” From “cedar” swamps in New Jersey, these trees were cut and charcoal made of them, to be used in American gunpowder during the Revolutionary War. Its natural resistance to decay is excelled by no other wood in its region, and so it was used extensively for shingles, piers, posts, cabins, small boats, water barrels, telegraph poles and trolley line cross-ties. Logs were even bored out to make city water supply pipes in the early days of America. When, in the late 1700s, there was fear of running out of these valuable trees, a new source was discovered: ancient logs from trees long-since dead were mined from the depths of the bogs. Later, pressure on the swamps themselves increased as a push was made toward agricultural and developmental expansions into these areas. At this time it is estimated that cedar swamps cover twenty percent of their historic area.
Before planting a white cedar, you have to choose one. Finding them is not the easiest task; usually specialty nurseries or grower direct sourcing are the best ways to get one. There are dwarf cultivars that stay as low as 4 or 5 feet, fast growing screen-type cultivars that will compete admirably with the more popular Leyland cypress or 'Green Giant' arborvitae in both size and growth rate, colorful cultivars in blue, grey or yellow, and others. Under cultivation, a wet site is not required but is acceptable if that is the nature of the site. Full sun is best, as is acidic soil with plenty of organic matter.
Little maintenance is required as no serious pests or diseases threaten white cedar. Choosing an appropriate cultivar size is important; pruning is not recommended.
A Few Landscape Cultivars
- ‘Red Star’