Thuja Occidentalis: Identification and Edible Uses

A North American seed cone-bearing evergreen tree, eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is popular for its ornamental purposes, medicinal properties and edible parts. Its fresh or dried leaves have been used for tea. The inner bark can be collected and eaten fresh or dried to be used as flour. 

Eastern white cheddar plant profile

Scientific nameThuja occidentalis
FamilyCupressaceae (cypress family)
Plant typeEvergreen coniferous tree

Common names include:

  • American arborvitae
  • Eastern arborvitae
  • Eastern white cedar 
  • Northern white cedar
  • Arbor vitae
  • Tree of life
  • Swamp cedar

Where does Thuja occidentalis grow?

It is native to North America, including:

  • eastern Canada
  • northern US
  • northeastern US
  • eastern United States

Arborvitae can be found in:

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  • Maine
  • Minnesota
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Illinois
  • Ohio
  • Michigan
  • Wisconsin
  • Tennessee
  • New England
  • Manitoba
  • Nova Scotia

A white cedar prefers alkaline soils and moist, well-drained wet soils, and it can tolerate dry sites and road salts in the presence of full sun to partial shade. 

Is Thuja occidentalis the same as Thuja?

There are five species in the genus Thuja, and Thuja occidentalis is just one of those five. The other four are:

  • Thuja koraiensis (Korean thuja found in Korea)
  • Thuja standishii (Japanese thuja found in Honshu and Shikoku)
  • Thuja plicata (western redcedar found from Alaska to Mendocino county in California)
  • Thuja sutchuenensis (Sichuan thuja found in Sichuan and Chongqin China and almost extinct)

All thuja species are low maintenance, versatile, evergreen trees ranging in size from small to large and have reddish-brown bark as well as soft, delicate scale-like leaves arranged into fan-shaped branchlets.

The evergreens in this group have a mild aromatic scent and are soft to the touch.

Is Thuja occidentalis the same as emerald green?

The smaragd, or emerald green, is a semi-dwarf adaptation of Thuja occidentalis. In 1950, it was selected as a seedling in Denmark. It was highly desirable due to several features, including its slow growth rate.

It is estimated that Thuja emerald green arborvitae conifers can grow up to one foot per year and grow nearly straight up.

Thuja occidentalis emerald green
Thuja occidentalis emerald green

What is the difference between a Thuja and arborvitae?

It is common for individuals to confuse Arborvitae and Thuja. Despite a few differences, the trees are the same species and may vary slightly in size.

How to identify a Northern White Cedar

A northern white cedar is a shrub to small tree that can grow to a height of 20′ to 40′ and a width of 10′ to 15′. 

The trunk is often twisted, strongly tapered, and frequently divided into two or more direct stems, while its branches are short and nearly horizontal, which sometimes results in thickets that are almost impossible to penetrate due to the stiffness and persistence of dead branches.

Its bark is gray to reddish-brown and separated into long, vertical, narrow strips. The leaves of this plant are scale-like, green to yellowish-green in color, and flat in shape

A small, oblong, yellowish-brown cone forms on the branches’ ends in the first year’s fall and ripens in the following year.

When crushed, the white cedar emits a pleasant, aromatic scent.

Thuja occidentalis 'brabant'
Thuja occidentalis ‘brabant’

What is Thuja occidentalis used for?

The leaves and leaf oil have traditionally been used as medicinesThuja is also used in manufacturing cosmetics and soaps as a flavoring agent and fragrance. It is also possible to use boiled leaves as cleansing bath water.

People use Thuja for various conditions, including:

  • respiratory tract infections
  • cold sores (herpes labialis)
  • osteoarthritis

Eastern white cedar supports the following body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory
  • Lymphatic

Is Thuja occidentalis poisonous (to humans or pets)?

Pruning a long hedge can irritate sensitive humans over time. Wear gloves and long sleeves if you wish to prune this type of hedge.

There have been reports that dogs may experience digestive upset if ingesting a large quantity of thujas, but thujas do not appear on the ASPCA’s list of toxic plants for humans, cats, dogs, or horses.

Edible uses

The eastern white cedar tree is edible and has a number of uses.

Traditionally, First Nations people would harvest and dry it, then grind it into a powder for use when traveling or in an emergency. Fresh or dried leaves have been used for tea.

The leaves and bark can be steeped to make a vitamin C-rich tea, but you should skim off any oils that float to the surface.

In the spring, the inner bark can be collected and eaten fresh or dried to be used as flour. 

Back in the day, Jacques Cartier treated his crew for scurvy with a white cedar tea prepared under the herbal instruction of the Mi’kmaq.

Eastern white cedar cones
Eastern white cedar cones

Can you plant eastern white cedar?

Planting eastern white cedars is a popular option for garden hedges due to their lush green foliage.

The eastern white cedar can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 8. It is not necessary to place the tree in a swampy or boggy area, but it will thrive in a water garden or a damp landscape area.

It is best to have full sunlight and rich, moist loam soil.

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