"White cedar" is sometimes used as the common name of arborvitae, but it also refers to a specific species of evergreen conifer tree common to the coastal plain of the American Southeast--the Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides). It is much less popular for use in ornamental gardens, but serves a good windbreak or screening purpose. Grow it in U.S. Department of Agriculture winter hardiness zones 4 through 8.
Atlantic white cedar hails from Maine southward to Florida's panhandle region and westward to Mississippi. It grows naturally no further inland than 130 miles from the coast, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and often is found in moist soil pockets with acid-loving soil plants like clethra and blueberry.
This evergreen with scaled needles that look like those of a juniper (Juniperus spp.) matures into a tall, column-like tree 40 to 50 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide. Its needles are thin scales that overall look very wispy or feathery, making the tree look finely textured. On the underside of the scales are tiny white lines. Its ripe female cones are light sienna-brown, occurring in small clusters on branch tips and are only 1/4-inch in diameter. In the cold of winter the foliage deepens to a drab dark green, but in the growing season is a much brighter light green to pale bluish green.
Plant an Atlantic white cedar in full sun, with no less than eight to 10 hours of direct sun rays daily year-round. Ideal soil conditions are an acidic pH soil (less than 7.0) that is deep and sandy; it also grows in loam and clay types, too. It grows well in boggy soils and where drainage of water after rain is slow.
The tan-colored wood of Atlantic white cedar is lightweight and buoyant, fragrant, repels insects, and is resistant to decay. It's been logged heavily since the Revolutionary War for fuels, shipbuilding, shingles, lumber, charcoal, household items, barrels, pails, tubs, water tanks, and duck decoys according to the U.S. Forest Service. Today, the wood is more frequently used for telephone poles, posts, siding, boat railings, decking, lawn furniture and paneling.
The tree is a good naturalized plant for sunny, wet soil locations in a landscape to provide cover and nesting for a wide array of birds. Deer love to eat the foliage, so it may not be the best plant to grow in a garden where hungry deer are not wanted.
The wild species of Atlantic white cedar typically isn't used in ornamental garden settings. Mutant selections of the tree provide more gardenesque qualities favored by horticulturists and have been given cultivar (cultivated variety) names and sold at nurseries. "Variegata" has creamy gold and green needles; it looks best in more shady locations. Two cultivars with a wider pyramid shape are "Andelyensis" (which grows 15 feet tall with green foliage that turns purple in winter) and "Aurea" (with golden needles that turn bronze in winter, maturing to 10 feet tall). Dwarf selections include "Ericoides," growing to 6 feet in height, and "Little Jamie" that slowly reaches maturity at only 4 feet.