Arborvitae - Evergreen Arborist Consultants | Certified Tree Arborist (2024)

Arborvitaes are evergreen conifers, native to North America and Asia. Thanks to their hardy nature, they are quite popular among homeowners, arborists and landscape designers.

Additionally, arborvitaes, whose name translates to “tree of life” in Latin, provide a bounty of food for the local fauna. This means that these beautiful trees are not only popular among humans – animals love them too.

What’s In a Name?

Botanists and tree care professionals use the term arborvitae to describe any of five different tree species, which belong to the genus Thuja.

Three species are historically native to Asia:

  • Korean arborvitae (Thuja koraiensis)

  • Japanese arborvitae (Thuja standishii)

  • Sichuan arborvitae (Thuja sutchuenensis) – Extinct in the wild

Two species call North America home:

Some people refer to arborvitaes as cedars, which can lead to confusion, as arborvitaes are not members of the genus Cedrus – the true cedars. Others use the terms redcedar or whitecedar when referring to these trees. These names are not as problematic, but by using the term arborvitae (or Thuja), you can avoid most of the confusion entirely.

Historically, scientists placed several other trees in the genus Thuja, including Chinese swamp cypresses (Glyptostrobuspensilis), Athel pines (Tamarix aphylla) and Alaskan cypresses (Cupressus nootkatensis). However, plant taxonomists currently assign these species to other genera.

Physical Characteristics

During their first year of life, arborvitaes produce needle-like leaves; thereafter, their leaves take on a scale-like appearance. The leaves occur along branches arranged in flat splays radiating out from the trunk. Small seed-bearing cones sit along the ends of the boughs. Although they begin as small, tightly closed, greenish yellow structures, they turn brown and open to release their seeds upon reaching maturity. In the fall, older, interior branches may turn brown and die off. This is a natural part of the trees’ biology and no cause for concern.

Horticulturists have produced several arborvitae cultivars (and hybrids), such as Nigra and Smaragd. Whereas most wild-type arborvitaes exhibit a columnar growth habit, several cultivars become round, globe-like trees or shrubs. The leaves of some forms bear golden foliage, rather than the emerald green color typical on most other varieties. Most cultivars originate from the Eastern arborvitae.

Uses and Suitability

Part of the appeal of arborvitaes (at least some cultivars) is their rapid growth rate, which can exceed 2 feet per year when planted in good locations. This rapid growth rate appeals to homeowners and developers faced with bare lots and front yards. Many employ arborvitaes as specimen trees or ornamentals, but thanks to their dense foliage and upright, often columnar, growth habit, arborvitaes are among the most popular choices for privacy screens and hedges. Although most arborvitaes remain between 40 and 60 feet in height, some members of the genus (Thuja plicata) may climb over 200 feet high, so it is important to select a variety suitable for the site.

Despite the fact that the wood of arborvitaes is soft and lightweight, it is commonly used in a variety of applications. It’s resistance to decay makes it well suited for making fences, sign posts and other items that are exposed to the elements. Characteristically aromatic, the odor of the wood (which most people find pleasant) repels moths and other insects to some degree, which leads craftsmen to use it in the production of clothing chests and closets. Additionally, luthiers and others who construct stringed instruments often incorporate arborvitae wood into the instruments, such as guitars.

Ecology

Arborvitaes nourish a variety of animals, including those considered beneficial as well as pest species. Deer are especially fond of arborvitae foliage, as are porcupines, squirrels, rabbits, hares and beavers. Many songbirds eagerly consume the seeds and make their nests in the tree’s branches.

Although they are susceptible to a few pests and pathogens (particularly a few types of blight); arborvitaes are usually problem-free trees. Although bagworms may feed on over 100 different tree species, they often feed on arborvitaes. Hedge-like plantings are especially vulnerable to these pests, while those planted as specimens or ornamentals are less susceptible to serious infestation. Typically, hand removal of the bagworms is the preferred method of control, as the bugs’ protective encasem*nt offers them some protection from insecticides.

Arborvitae - Evergreen Arborist Consultants | Certified Tree Arborist (2024)

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