Our native arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis, a tree often called the Northern white cedar, or just “cedar” in Maine, can live for 300 years and lift its horizontal branches 60feet or more into the sky. Its roots are anchored firmly in Maine’s past.
In “The Maine Woods,” Thoreau described how Native Americans constructed a carrying harness for canoes from cedar shingles and bark. The frames of the canoes were also made from arborvitae wood and for the same reason that all the old lumber camps of the North Woods had cedar shingles: The wood resists decay forever.
Arborvitae means “tree of life,” a name conferred by the king of France when cedar tea, a drink made by Native Americans from the bark and needles of the tree, cured Jacques Cartier’s sailors of scurvy during their voyage up the St. Lawrence in 1535-36. Arborvitae thus became the first of North American conifers to be cultivated in Europe, introduced to Paris by Capt. Cartier on his return.
Never as tall as its neighboring white pines and spruces, arborvitae is a compact tree with a buttressed trunk and shredding reddish or silver-gray bark. Trees growing on rocky upland sites often remain small, growing as natural bonsai forms with twisted trunks and gnarly crowns, while those with roots in richer soil grow straight and tall.
The soft yellow-green foliage, apple-scented when crushed, consists of tiny, scaly leaves borne in flat, filigree sprays that are a favorite of florists. In late summer the sprays of foliage bear clusters of oval, pea-sized cones that slowly ripen from green to warm brown.
Seedlings may persist for decades in the shade of taller trees, waiting for a gap in the canopy. When we discover a young arborvitae hidden within a crowd of seedling spruce at the edge of Marjorie’s garden, we grab the loppers and create the canopy gap, liberating the small seedling, wishing it a long life. A few years later, we can recognize these new friends, twice as tall as they were on the day of liberation, by their location.
Horticulturists have discovered and propagated more than 200 forms of arborvitae varying in foliage color, growth habit, and growth rate. Many are slow-growing forms of the species, often called dwarf conifers. Some are short and stout, others pendulous in habit. Many grow only 1 to 3 inches a year, never reaching more than a few feet in height.
Among the tree-sized cultivars are several selections, including ‘Nigra’ and ‘Wintergreen,’ grown for their dark green winter color which some prefer over the bronzy winter color of the species. Recently, Spring Meadow Nursery introduced a new selection, ‘North Pole,’ described as a “cool new evergreen that will add elegance to your garden all year round!” This very narrow columnar selection of ‘Wintergreen’ has excellent hardiness and dark green winter foliage color. ‘North Pole’ grows only 15 feet in height, an ideal size for shrub borders and even large containers.
I am partial to the wild arborvitae and to one specimen in particular. It has been growing at the edge of Marjorie’s garden for decades, long before there was a garden, but only recently, after we cleared away the spruce around it, did we realize its grace and beauty.
For years I gardened near this tree, catching glimpses of its shredding bark and sprays of foliage in gaps between branches of the crowding spruce, unaware of its tall pyramidal form and symmetry. With the spruce out of the way, it is a commanding presence on the western edge of the vegetable garden.
True enough, its leaves now lack the fresh apple-green color of summer, having turned a dull yellow-green with the cold, a sharp contrast in both color and texture to the dark pines behind it. This does not bother me; I enjoy the seasonal change in the character of trees. I still have vivid memory of this evergreen tree in late October, its older branchlets, ready to be shed, turning cinnamon brown among the apple-green of younger branchlets, while the 2-year-old needles on nearby pines turned golden.
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