Arbor Vitae

I trudge down the old road between the red pine plantation on my right and the horse pasture on my left. The deep snow doesn’t slow the dog as much as it slows me. At the bottom of the hill we cross the creek and start up the road on the other side. Every time I walk this property, I marvel at the resourcefulness of the farmers who have owned it for generations. I could write volumes from the observations here…

Before I reach the top of the rise, my path is blocked by the skeletal remains of a once majestic tree.  I look for clues to what species it is. The branching pattern is unfamiliar to me.

Eastern White Cedar-1

Most of the “leaves” are gone. A few brown ones remain… needles that aren’t needles – more like reptilian scales surrounding the twigs… just enough to give me the informatin I need.

Eastern White Cedar-2

Ironic that this dead tree is called Arbor Vitae – Tree of Life.

When I get home, I open my tree books and search the ‘net. The first three sources list three different ways of presenting the common name:  Arbor Vitae, arborvitae, or Arbor-vitae.  It also goes by Cedar, White Cedar, Northern White Cedar, and Eastern White Cedar.  The Latin name is Thuja occidentalis.

The USDA range map is a little misleading for it shades an entire state when the tree is found anywhere in the state. 


The Forest Service map attempts to be a little more precise… But since the tree is now cultivated for ornamental uses, you can find it in places outside the native range maps.

Forest Service Map

Since I do not live in the tree’s official native range, I assume that the fallen tree was planted here, like so many of the trees on this property, and I wonder what the motivation was for selecting this species.

It is doubtful the landowners wanted the tree for its vitamin C, though the foliage is rich in it and the tree therefore rich in the legend of a cure that saved a French expedition. The story is well told by retired horticulturist Gerald Klingaman at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension site:

In 1536, the French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491 – 1557) was sailing up the St. Lawrence River with a crew of 110 seamen and a pair of native youths he had picked up on his first voyage to modern day Canada two years earlier. He was looking for the famed Northwest Passage to China and made it as far upriver as possible.

After the sea crossing and the trip inland, the crew was suffering from scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency, which causes bleeding gums and tooth loss, bleeding under the skin, extreme fatigue and often death. On his way upriver, he left the two natives in their home village, expecting neither to survive the serious scurvy attack, which had beset them during the Atlantic crossing.

In his journal, Cartier described the condition of Domagaia, the younger of the two boys as “very sicke and his knees swollen as bigge as a cild of two years old, and all his sinews shrunken together, his teeth spoyled.”

After ten days absence he returned to the Huron village of Stadacona – today the site of Quebec – and found the two boys alive and well and fully recovered. On seeing their speedy recovery, he appealed to the boy to show him how the cure was achieved.

Shortly Cartier was presented with several branches of the evergreen tree and told how to chop and boil the leaves to extract the elixir that would cure the crew. [source]

Because of this miracle, Cartier is reported to have transported Arbor Vitae to France after this expedition, making it the first North American tree to be introduced into Europe.

I read on, looking for a more plausible motivation for planting this species. Since the landowners of the property I walk have been practical farmers for generations, I would guess they were thinking of future fence posts when they planted. The wood of the Arbor Vitae is soft and lightweight, yet resists decay for decades.

Eastern White Cedar


2 thoughts on “Arbor Vitae

  1. Thanks for the story about Cartier and scurvy. Who knew? As to why those cedars were planted, could the farmer have wanted a windbreak? I read somewhere that white cedars are a very high value tree for supporting wildlife, too.

  2. It’s no surprise to me that you have another incredible post today. Loved the story about the arborvitea. I will forever look at it in a different way! I planted a row of them for privacy several years back. They were fast growers and filled in so nicely. ~karen

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