Plant of the Week
Latin: Thuja occidentalis
Plant names come in several flavors. While common names are
the most popular flavor amongst gardeners, it’s difficult to completely
avoid more technical names. Sometimes gardeners are tricked into using these
dreaded Latin names and don’t even know they have been duped. The evergreen
tree, Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) is such a case.
Arborvitaes are slow growing needle-leaf evergreen trees or
shrubs that come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. The largest
selections attain 25 feet in height. While young, the plant has an upright
character, but with age they tend to spread in the middle, usually becoming
a third as wide as tall.
Because arborvitaes are so easy to propagate by cuttings,
more than 100 selections have been made of this native American tree. About
a forth of the cultivars have golden foliage or some form of variegation.
Another quarter are slow growing plants suitable for the rock garden or
dwarf conifer collection. The remaining group varies from round globes to
tall screening plants, depending on the selection.
The Eastern Arborvitae is native to the upper reaches of the
North Woods and is most abundant in a belt from Manitoba to Nova Scotia. As
Thoreau described it, arborvitaes prefer "mossy and moosey" locations along
the riverbanks and streams. It comes southward at higher elevations in the
Arborvitae is a Latin name given to the tree by 16th century
French botanists who first described it for science. The name means "tree of
life," and therein lies the tale of its discovery.
In 1536, the French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491 - 1557)
was sailing up the St. Lawrence River with a crew of 110 seamen and a pair
of native youths he had picked up on his first voyage to modern day Canada
two years earlier. He was looking for the famed Northwest Passage to China
and made it as far upriver as possible.
After the sea crossing and the trip inland, the crew was
suffering from scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency, which causes bleeding gums
and tooth loss, bleeding under the skin, extreme fatigue and often death. On
his way upriver, he left the two natives in their home village, expecting
neither to survive the serious scurvy attack, which had beset them during
the Atlantic crossing.
In his journal, Cartier described the condition of Domagaia,
the younger of the two boys as "very sicke and his knees swollen as bigge as
a cild of two years old, and all his sinews shrunken together, his teeth
After ten days absence he returned to the Huron village of
Stadacona - today the site of Quebec - and found the two boys alive and well
and fully recovered. On seeing their speedy recovery, he appealed to the boy
to show him how the cure was achieved.
Shortly Cartier was presented with several branches of the
evergreen tree and told how to chop and boil the leaves to extract the
elixir that would cure the crew.
On his return France he took with him this North American
tree, the first to be introduced to Europe. Thus the tree of life, or Arbor
vitae, became known for a short time for its curative properties until the
more tasty and easily transported citrus fruits took its place as a scurvy
‘Emerald,’ ‘Techny’ and ‘Wintergreen’ are some of the best
upright forms for screening. ‘Woodwardii’ and ‘Hetz Midget’ are good dwarf,
All should be planted in full sun in a reasonably fertile soil that can
be watered during periods of summer drought. An Achilles heel of the
arborvitae is its susceptibility to bagworms, which must be scouted for each
May to ensure they don’t become too numerous.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
November 9, 2002
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