Thuja occidentalis (White Cedar)

Plant Info
Also known as: Arborvitae, Swamp Cedar, Northern White Cedar, Eastern White Cedar
Family:Cupressaceae (Cypress)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, sun; moist to wet; peat swamps, moist upland forest, rocky lakeshores, cliffs
Bloom season:April - May
Plant height:40 to 80 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACW MW: FACW NCNE: FACW
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct

[photo of male strobili] Male and female flowers are cone like structures called strobili, both borne on separate twigs or branchlets of the same branch. Male cones are round, 1/16 inch long with brownish scales on a short, stout stem at the branchlet tip.

[photo of female strobili] Female flower cones appear as several ranks of dark tipped tan scales at branchlet tips, also little more than 1/16 inch long.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are opposite, scale-like with abruptly pointed tips, 1/10 (or less) to ¼ inch long, in bead-like ranks along the branch in two pairs, each pair perpendicular to the other, the outer pair lateral and wrapping around the more flattened, inner pair. Leaves are bright green through the first winter then turn brown and woody and persist for several years.

[photo of bark] Trunks are up to 50 inches in diameter, with thin, grayish brown bark in long, thin and flattened vertical ridges that can loosen in flat strips over time. Branchlets form a flat fan-like spray, covered with the green and brown scale-like leaves, bark on small twigs smooth and reddish brown. Branches may take root where they touch the ground.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of dried cone after seed released] Fruit is an egg-shaped cone, 1/3 to ½ inch long, green to pinkish brown when immature, turning dark brown at maturity with cone scales opening to release seeds in the fall.

[photo of seed] Each cone contains about 8 seeds; seeds are generally elliptic, flattened, winged, and about ¼ inch long including the wings.


White Cedar is a mid-sized, conical-shaped evergreen tree common throughout much of north central and northeastern Minnesota. A familiar sight along the rocky cliffs of the northshore and lake shorelines in the BWCA, it is also abundant in sphagnum peat swamps where it creates magical dark and cool cover for such things as rare orchids. Young saplings can persist many years in deep shade of surrounding trees as well as persisting as old stunted trees on open, harsh rocky cliffs, like the famed, 500-year-old Little Spirit Cedar Tree at Grand Portage. It is a highly favored deer browse and can be observed along highways in long rows, tightly trimmed from below to the height of the deer's highest reach. White cedar is also the source of the myriad cultivars of arborvitae found in the nursery trade. These and even the native form can be found in landscapes and windbreaks throughout Minnesota.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Carlton, Lake and St. Louis counties. Photos courtesy John Thayer taken in Itasca County. 'Little Spirit Cedar Tree' © Xerxes2004 is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Robert W. Fix Sr. - Buffalo
on: 2021-11-24 13:24:37

Trees/shrubs that appear to be of the cedar variety seeded themselves on my mother-in-law's lawn at Barnesville, MN and a few places (wood chip perennial garden and in a rock garden) in our yard in Buffalo, MN even though there are no cedars or other trees/shrubs in either neighborhood that look similar. I've left them grow for 8 years or more in both locations and they are now peaked spheres as tall as 10 ft. Where do they originate from and when is the best time to prune them back to have them be shapely and not any taller?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2021-11-24 14:14:48

Robert, seed spreads naturally via wind, water and critters as well as unnaturally when (unintentionally) mixed in with wood chips, compost, seed mixes, etc. or in tire treads, dog fur etc. There is no telling where you're originated. The best time to prune most plants is when they are dormant.

Posted by: Christine Michelsen - Dakota County
on: 2022-06-05 21:17:23

Is there a nativar or cultivar of Thuja occidentalis (White Cedar)that is best, when looking for a smaller variety? I need a privacy screen for a smaller yard and cannot support such a large tree. Thank you.

Posted by: K Chayka
on: 2022-06-06 10:47:18

Christine, we are not familiar with who sells what and, while there are non-native arborvitaes readily available, I doubt there is a nativar of this species that meets your specific requirements. But ask around.

Posted by: A. Wallace - Gatzke
on: 2023-10-31 11:22:40

I have identified a fairly old Northern White Cedar tree in a thick patch of woods northeast of Thief Lake in the northeastern corner of Marshall County, MN. Wondering if you could update your map, as there are shown to be none of this tree in Marshall County. I could give approximate coordinates if necessary.

Posted by: K Chayka
on: 2023-10-31 11:35:05

A. Wallace, the DNR's Biological Survey team has recorded white cedar in several locations in Marshall County. New maps for all species are being created and this one will be updated in turn. It does take time, though.

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