Nature Nugget: How do Cedars Grow in the Wild?

Explore the biology, ecology of northern white cedar.

Northern white cedar is among the easiest evergreens to identify, with stringy and fibrous bark and flat, scaly leaves. It’s commonly planted as ornamental. In Vermont’s natural areas, northern white cedar is found on calcium-rich rock cliffs and in swamps. Cedar can also be found in old field sites, but won’t survive there in the long-term. Where cedars live very much determines how they reproduce.

What is a cedar swamp and how does it influence growth?

The state’s northern white cedar swamps are found occasionally in the Champlain Valley and south into Rutland County, but they are more common in northeastern Vermont. As the name suggests, these swamps are wet and may have deep peat or muck. These natural communities—or neighborhoods—might also include balsam firs and white pines; alder-leaved buckthorns and dwarf raspberries; and fine-leaved sedges, mosses, and liverworts. Due to the calcium-rich waters often found in these swamps, there also tend to be many rare plants species, including ram’s head lady’s slipper and small yellow lady’s slipper. 

In these swamps, cedars do something cool: they can reproduce from a branch in a process called layering. This means if you lay a branch down on moist ground and moss grows over it, each branch node can produce a new tree. Each new branch is called a “layer.”

Northern white cedars will reproduce by layering in the swamps.

Cedars don’t typically reproduce by layering. “It only happens naturally in the swamps, where it doesn’t dry out,” explains VLT Director of Conservation Science Liz Thompson, who led a talk on the conifer (see above video). The layering technique is used often in horticulture; while moss helps hold moisture around the branch in the wild, horticulturists must keep the soil around the branch moist to encourage growth. 

Northern white cedar can reproduce through layering.

Cedar layers. Photo by: Laura Kenefic, PhD, U.S. Forest Service

While northern white cedar grows relatively slowly in swamps and lowland sites, it can grow to be very old. Northern white cedars can easily reach 400 years old if undisturbed; a northern white cedar in Ontario dated more than 1650 years old.

How is this different from other northern white cedar habitats?

These cedars can also be found in upland forests, which are drier. However, they don’t usually survive in uplands except on extremely dry cliff-tops. In these areas, the northern white cedars depend on wind pollination to create seeds. You can find the seeds in the brown, oblong cones. The seeds are also dispersed by wind, which typically happens in early fall.

With luck, a seed will land on a rotten log or stump, where it has a better chance of survival due to the warmth and moisture of these mossy seedbeds. Growth is slow; the average cedar will grow about three inches in its first several years.



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