The unusual looking northern white cedar is nothing to be concerned about

Northern white cedar, a common tree across the Michigan landscape, is in a cycle of extremely heavy seed production. The differing look of the trees is the result of exploding cone production and an indication of a healthy resource.

Cone cluster on northern white cedar – Photo Credit: Michael Schira, MSU Extension

Cone cluster on northern white cedar – Photo Credit: Michael Schira, MSU Extension

Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is abundant across most forested regions in the northern two-thirds of the state. It has adapted to many soil types, it can be found in pure stands or mixed with other species on all but the driest of sites. The species is important to white tail deer as both cover and winter browse. In addition to deer, white cedar stands have been found to support 83 species of animals including over 40 species of birds.

Adding to the natural stands of white cedar, it is also a popular landscape species that’s more likely to be identified as “arborvitae” in these settings. One of the first North American tree species introduced to Europe, the name is said to have originated with early French explorers in North America who were introduced to unique qualities of the tree by the Native Americans. Tea steeped from the bark and boughs contains vitamin C and can prevent or cure scurvy; thus the Latin-derived name arborvitae or “Tree of Life”.

This growing season, the trees appear to be laden with light yellowish green colored clumps easily distinguished from the darker natural color of the foliage. Although individual cones are small, about one-half inches long, this year the cone production has exploded. Large clusters of cones are the cause of the new look and color variance to familiar trees.

Later in the growing season, these clumps of cones will begin to turn brown. With such a heavy cone production season many cedar, heavily laden with cones, may appear to be dying due to the browning color from a distance. The reality of the situation is the browning of the trees is simply an indication of massive cone production and good overall tree health.

It is unclear why these trees are so abundant in cone production this year. The most popular explanation is that massive cone production in a particular year is just part of a natural cycle for the species. Regardless of what is stimulating the production this year, it is an indication of a healthy northern white cedar resource and should benefit all the wildlife species associated with the trees.

For additional information on this valuable tree species, a bulletin is available through Michigan State University Extension. “Forest Types of Michigan – Northern White Cedar” E3202 Bulletin 7, a production of the MSU Extension forestry team, highlights many of the growth and ecological aspects of the tree along with providing management suggestions.

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