The red cedar is historically a valuable timber tree, specifically the Western red cedar. The Eastern red cedar, by contrast, yields poor quality wood and is actually considered obnoxious and invasive. At one point, when the price of Western cedar went so high, farmers were selling their cedar fence posts for use in the production of pencils. Today, the tree is still desirable but valued as a commodity that needs preservation and management.
The Western red cedar is from the Cypress family (Cupressaceae) and grows 150 to 175 feet high. Is is easily identified by the green glossy flattened needles that have a webbed fan look. The needles tend to be sharp and have a pleasant pine-like fragrance when crushed. The cedar is a conical evergreen with gray to brown bark that runs in flat ridges up the tree. According to the USDA Plant Guide, "The seed cones are ellipsoid, 10-14 mm long, brown; seeds 8-14 per cone, 4-7.5 mm long, with lateral wings about as wide as the body."
Today, lumberjacks cut the red cedar tree timber for milling into exterior housing shingles and rough shakes. It is the most widely used siding material, with its best quality being its resistance to moisture and rot. Other uses for red cedar are extensive, including for timber, floorboards, decking boards and anywhere else the natural beauty of cedar is desired. It is also used for closets and chests, where the aroma is a natural moth deterrent.
The Western red cedar tends to grow on moist and acid soil in lowlands where moisture accumulates, but you can find them in almost any setting, even rocky slopes. Cedars tend to grow among a mix of tree types rather than in clumps of just cedars. Cone production starts in trees about 10 to 20 years old, with peak production after 75 years. Seeds germinate when in contact with soil or rotted wood and do best in the shade. Grazing wildlife poses the biggest hindrance to effective seedling growth. The Western red cedar is second only to the yellow cedar as the oldest growing tree of Washington state, and specimens are known to be as old as 1,500 years, principally because of its resistance to rot when its top gets broken off. When other trees loose their tops due to wind or lightening, moisture enters the broken areas and the trees rot from the top down within a few years. Not subject to this problem, the Western red cedar actually regrows from around the breaking point, forming new high branches, which gives it the look that is characteristic of old Western cedars.
Ancient stands of Western red cedar were destroyed as the demand for the beautiful lumber pushed up the price. Today, however, conservationists suggest that the logging of older trees be avoided completely and that large trees be used only "if certified by an organization accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)," according to the Rainforest Service.
The Western red cedar is actually easy to propagate. It sprouts well from seeds that are sown on moist soils during the fall. Cuttings are also quite successful when rooted in containers and then replanted as 2-year-old seedlings in reforestation projects.