You gotta get right up close for this one – bury your face in the green leafy fronds of the White Cedar and take a deep breath. Now feel them with your fingers – can you feel the scales? Under each scale on the leaf of a White Cedar, or Thuja Occidentalis, is a gland that emits tiny droplets of oil, which gives their characteristic (and medicinal) smell.
If you want to, you can break off a tiny bit of Thuja leaf to taste. These delicious leaves are available to browsing wildlife all winter long. In the Springtime forests, it’s common to see branches stripped of their leaves by hungry deer.
Thuja are the longest-lived trees of this region, commonly living more than 400 years, and some even longer than 1500 years. These exceptionally ancient trees have only survived on hard-to-reach placed like the escarpment face, where it’s difficult for anything to mess with them. But mostly though, due to the carnage of settler occupation, Thuja have been messed with pretty hard. It is no longer common to see a mature Thuja growing in good soils around here.
These trees are not actually a part of the Cedar family, which has no members native to this continent. Junipers also get called Cedars, so we tend to just call these trees Thuja, their latin name. Most of the Thuja in the city are ornamental cultivars, often planted close together as a hedge.
Although less medicinally potent than the wild ones, these ornamentals are still important sources of food for birds and are prime nesting sites for many species. Can you find some of the small flaky cones? Crack one open and see if you can find any of the little seeds that sit under each scale.
Thuja leaves emit a chemical cocktail of essential oils containing chemicals such as thujone. Relaxing near a cedar when the sun is strong and the leaves warmed can strengthen your heart, since thujone is a cardiac muscle stimulant. Leaves also contain camphor, which improves and slows breathing, good for countering the effects of factory smog from the lands just to the East of here.