The Tree of Life

By Elaine Farragher

For the past six or seven summers, I have spent much time near a five acre field in the middle of farming country in Ontario’s Grey-Bruce area. This field, which had been previously cropped, has now been left to its own devices and it has been of great interest to see who wins and who loses in the battle for space and light now going on within its boundaries. The land that borders two sides of the field is still being farmed. Bordering it on the other two sides is a mature cedar forest on one side, and a fairly mature mixed forest on the other, of which maple, ash and hemlock are the predominant species.

If one were to manage an aerial view of the field, I believe the scene would be somewhat akin to a huge chessboard, with the little pawns, representing the seedlings, advancing bravely across the board, the first incursions into the new territory. These are followed, a little further back, by the knights and bishops of the saplings with the taller kings and queens of the soon-to-be mature trees bringing up the rear, merging into the tall forest beyond.

At first, I believed it to be an interesting contest of equally-matched contestants, battling it out for supremacy. But it has quickly become very clear that this is absolutely not the case. The cedars are relentlessly clobbering the mixed forest.

The Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is indeed a hardy species. Although slow-growing, it is inexorable once it gets under way, for it has few enemies. While other trees are being devoured by voracious insects, or debilitated by disease, the cedar grows merrily on, unbothered. While this water-loving tree may get rather brown if it doesn’t get enough moisture, it can still manage to survive, especially if the soil is somewhat alkaline.

This tree has the distinction of being the first North American tree imported into Europe. This occurred in 1536, when it was given the beautiful name “Arbor Vitae” – Latin for “Tree of Life”. It was so distinguished because the Indians had shown Jacques Cartier and his crew how to brew tea from the vitamin C-rich leaves and bark, thereby saving them from certain death from scurvy. White-tailed dear still appreciate the nutrition they derive from the foliage, making cedar swamps a favourite wintering ground where they devour all they can reach. Hares and rabbits also eat the twigs and foliage, while red squirrels and many songbirds eat the seeds.

Of course, we humans have many and varied uses for this durable yet flexible tree, starting with the Indians who used the easily split and shaped wood to frame their canoes. Wonderfully rot-resistant, it is the favourite wood for many an outdoor project, used for cedar shakes, poles and sometimes siding. Thuja occidentalis has also become a popular tree of subdivisions, with over 50 varieties being developed for privacy hedges and ornamentals.

I remember a particularly enthralling walk as a child through a thick cedar woods. The path twisted and turned maze-like through the green towering walls of the trees which grew up to its edges. Thick cedar forests still evoke in me a Grimms fairy tale-like enchantment. The aroma too, is particularly note-worthy. After a couple of hours chopping or pruning cedar trees, you easily come away smelling like one.

A word here about its common name. The name “cedar” is a good example of the confusion that common names can bring to the classification of species. Actually, eastern white cedar, genus Thuja, is not a true cedar at all. The Genus ‘Cedris’ exists only in Europe and Asia. Also Eastern White Cedar is not closely related to Eastern Red Cedar which is actually a Juniper, genus Juniperis. But Western Red Cedar is the same genus – Thuja plicata. The Atlantic White Cedar is actually more closely related to the Cypress trees. All however, belong to the Cypress Family of trees (Cupressaceae).

But you don’t need to know that to appreciate the “tree of life”.

Elaine Farragher, August 1988

Subject headings