In North America, there are two evergreen tree species commonly called red cedars--the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and the western red cedar (Thuja plicata), perhaps better known as an arborvitae. Neither species is a true cedar (Cedrus spp.) but both provide gardeners sound options for specimen trees, windbreaks or hedgerows. Each red cedar has ornamental varieties that grow smaller than their wild parents, often with more colorful foliage or in shrub forms.
Eastern red cedar hails from eastern and central North America, roughly from the Atlantic Ocean westward to the Great Plains in the United States and southeastern-most Canada. Western red cedar occurs along the Pacific Coast from southeastern Alaska through British Columbia, western Washington and Oregon, and then southward into the redwood forests in northern California. There also are natural stands of western red cedar on the western slopes of the Rockies in Idaho and Montana.
Eastern red cedar is a tough evergreen tree attaining a dense pyramidal or columnar shape. It matures to 40 to 50 feet tall and 8 to 20 feet wide. The prickly, needled leaves are rich green in the summer but blush yellow-green to bronze-green in winter's cold. Female trees are usually covered in thousands of tiny pale blue cones 1/5-inch in diameter that provide food to birds in winter.
Western red cedar becomes a large, broadly pyramid-like evergreen tree upwards of 180 to 200 feet tall in its native range, where it is cool and moist, but in cultivation it grows to only 50 to 75 feet tall and 15 to 25 feet wide. Its flattened scaly foliage is feather-like and deep green, and it doesn't discolor in winter. Treetops tend to look forked, with dual growing tips. It tends to abort its lower limbs in shaded locations or with great age, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
For best growth, plant eastern red cedar in deep, moist, well-draining soils, although it tolerates both wetland and dry, rocky sites, too. Provide a sunny location for densest foliage and best branch structure. This species demonstrates a wide range of winter cold tolerance and is widely grown across U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 2 through 9.
Grow western red cedar in more consistently moist, deep and well-draining soils; it is not as drought- or soil-tolerant as the eastern red cedar. Plant it in a sunny spot for best form. This red cedar is best grown only in USDA hardiness zones 6, 7 and 8, where summers are cool and cloudy and winters wet and not overly cold.
Eastern red cedar, because of its broad growing tolerances, makes an exceptional windbreak tree in regions with lots of wind, intense or long-lasting summer heat or bitter winter cold. The dense foliage provides cover and nesting for many birds and can provide food for famished deer. The blue cones are eaten by a vast array of animals: waxwing, bobwhite, quail, ruffed grouse, pheasant, wild turkey, rabbit, fox, raccoon, skunk, opossum and coyote, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Cedarwood oil is a wood fragrance made from this tree species, and it also makes a good cut Christmas tree.
Western red cedar today is prized as a timber tree as well as an ornamental garden tree for shade and hedging. The wood is soft but durable and is prized for use in home construction and for shingling. Traditionally, Pacific Northwest Native Americans heavily used the wood and bark for building, medicine, myth and ceremony. Large game animals like deer, elk and moose eat the foliage of this tree.
Western red cedar is the provincial tree emblem for British Columbia, Canada. In Native American culture, the power of the western red cedar tree was said to be so strong that a person could receive its strength by merely standing with his back to the tree. It is sometimes called the "tree of life." A Coast Salish myth says the Great Spirit created western red cedar in honor of a man who was always helping others, according to The Gymnosperm Database.