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TREES & Plants

Eastern arborvitae

The eastern arborvitae is an extremely common evergreen tree or shrub, used often as a specimen, in hedges, or for privacy. When they first encountered the tree in eastern North American forests, colonists gave it the name "arborvitae," meaning "tree of life," because Native Americans reportedly used the tree for medicinal purposes. The small cones that open up to look like small flowers and appeal to birds such as cardinals, grosbeaks, and chickadees.  In the forest, the tree can grow up to 50 feet high, but it rarely is that tall in cultivation. There are many cultivars that vary in height and other characteristics. On some varieties, the foliage may discolor in winter.

Botanical name: 
Thuja occidentalis
All Common Names: 
Eastern arborvitae, Northern white cedar, American arborvitae
Family (English): 
Cypress
Family (Botanic): 
Cupressaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Shrub
  • Tree
Foliage: 
  • Evergreen (foliage year-round)
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 3
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
Growth Rate: 
  • Slow
  • Medium
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial sun (4-6 hrs light daily)
Tolerances: 
  • Dry sites
  • Wet sites
  • Road salt
Soil Preference: 
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
Size Range: 
  • Large tree (more than 40 feet)
  • Medium tree (25-40 feet)
  • Small tree (15-25 feet)
  • Medium shrub (5-8 feet)
  • Small shrub (3-5 feet)
  • Low-growing shrub (under 3 feet)
Shape or Form: 
  • Mounded
  • Narrow
  • Pyramidal
  • Round
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Massing
  • Hedge
  • Foundation
  • Screen
Time of Year: 
  • Early winter
  • Mid winter
  • Late winter
  • Early spring
  • Mid spring
  • Late spring
  • Early summer
  • Mid summer
  • Late summer
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
  • Late fall
More Information: 

Size

40 to 50 feet high and 15 to 25 feet wide; usually smaller in cultivation.

Some cultivars have been bred to be small shrubs.

Tree & Plant Care

Foliage tends to discolor in winter.

Tolerates shearing.

Prefers consistent moisture but not wet soil.

Keep mulched to moderate soil temperature swings.

Best growth occurs in full sun to part shade.


Disease, pests, and problems

Susceptible to the fungal disease and heart rot.

Can be affected by bagworm, leaf miner, spider mites, and deer browsing. 

Susceptible to strong wind, snow, and ice damage

 

Native geographic location and habitat

Forests of eastern North America.

C-Value: 10

Attracts birds, pollinators, or wildlife

Attractive for seed cones, shelter and nesting sites to birds such as cardinal, grosbeak, chickadee, robin, and sparrow.


Bark color and texture 

Grayish-brown to reddish-brown, with strongy fibers and a network of ridges and shallow furrows.


Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Soft and green, with spreading flat sprays of overlapping scales at the ends of short, ascending branches

Eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)Eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)photo: John Hagstrom

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Tiny oval seed cones mature from yellow to light brown.

When cones open they look like little roses.

 

Cultivars and their differences

Danica (Thuja occidentalis ‘Danica’) is a small, compact, ball-shaped shrub, growing 2 feet high and wide. Tolerates light shade and wet sites. Useful in foundation plantings, rock gardens, low hedges, or as accent plant.

Emerald Green (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) is a small tree with a narrow, pyramidal habit, growing 10 to 15 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide. Retains green color in winter. Tolerates heat, cold, and wet sites. Useful as a specimen plant, in groups, or as a hedge.

Globosa (Thuja occidentalis ‘Globosa’) is a medium-sized, broadly rounded shrub, growing 4 to 6 feet high and wide. Foliage may turn slightly gray-green in winter. Useful foundation plantings and as a hedge or accent plant.

Golden Globe (Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’) is a compact, ball-shaped shrub with yellow-green foliage. Can tolerate light shade and wet sites. Useful in foundation plantings, rock gardens or low hedges, or as accent plant.

Hetz' Midget (Thuja occidentalis ‘Hetz' Midget’) is a low shrub form, growing 3 to 4 feet high and wide. useful in foundation plantings, rock gardens, low hedges, as accent plant, or in containers, though container must be insulated to protect roots in winter.

Hetz' Wintergreen (Thuja occidentalis ‘Hetz' Wintergreen’) is narrow and columnar, 20 to 30 feet high and 5 to 10 feet wide, with a central leader. Useful as a specimen or, in rows, for hedges, screens,  or windbreaks.

Holmstrup (Thuja occidentalis ‘Holmstrup’) is a compact shrub with an upright habit, growing 6 to 8 feet high and 2 to 3 feet wide. Retains green color in winter. Tolerates poor drainage and alkaline soils. Deer resistant. Useful as a specimen plant, foundation plant, in groups, or as a low hedge

Mr. Bowling Ball (Thuja occidentalis ‘Bobazam’) is a small, compact, rounded shrub, growing just 2 to 3 feet high and wide. Dense, fine, soft, scale-like, gray-green foliage. Useful in foundation plantings or rock gardens, as an accent plant or in containers, though container must be insulated to protect roots in winter.

Nigra (Thuja occidentalis ‘Nigra’) has dark green foliage that persists all winter. Narrow and pyramidal, growing 25 to 30  feet high and 5 to 8 feet wide. Tolerates temporary flooding, heat and drought once established.  Exceptionally cold-hardy. Useful as a specimen or accent or in groups as a hedge, screen, or windbreak.

Pyramidalis (Thuja occidentalis ‘Pyramidalis’) is a tall, narrow, pyramidal tree, growing 20 to 30 feet high and 5 to 8 feet wide. Requires moist soil and tolerates temporary dry to wet sites, but does not tolerate drought. May suffer from winter burn if not sheltered from strong winds.

Techny (Thuja occidentalis ‘Techny’) is a broadly pyramidal small tree or large shrub, growing 10 to 15 feet tall and 12 to 18 feet wide. Dark green doliage retains color in winter. Extremely cold hardy and tolerant of alkaline soils. Useful as a specimen plant, in groups or screens, or as a hedge.  Also sold under the name 'Mission'.

Wareana (Thuja occidentalis ‘Wareana’) is broadly pyramidal and rounding with age, growing 8 to 10 feet high and 6 to 8 feet wide. The leathery foliage is tinged with blue. Tolerates we soil and is cold hardy. Useful as a specimen or accent, good for hedges and also for foundation plantings.

Woodwardii (Thuja occidentalis ‘Woodwardii’) is a rounded shrub form, growing 3 to 6 feet high and wide. Dense, soft, scale-like, green foliage. Tolerates light shade and wet sites. Useful as a specimen or in groups.