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Have you seen this tree? Taking stock of the Eastern white c

Posted: Mon Mar 13, 2017 1:44 pm
by Lucas
A local tree hunt. ... hite-cedar

Have you seen this tree? Taking stock of the Eastern white cedar


Published March 12, 2017 - 2:07pm
Last Updated March 12, 2017 - 2:15pm

Trudging along the Annapolis River, there are several hundred of the vulnerable Eastern White Cedars to be found and keeping an inventory is important for the future of the dwindling species.
Trudging along the Annapolis River, there are several hundred of the vulnerable Eastern White Cedars to be found and keeping an inventory is important for the future of the dwindling species.
I grew up with the Eastern white cedar, with the soothing smell of its lumber and the playful snapping of its waxy leaves when tossed into a campfire. The peeling, almost tissue quality of its bark and the swooping structure of its trunk defined the Ontario swamps I walked through as a young man, and when I moved to the East Coast I felt their absence. So when I saw my first local specimen a few weeks back, after years without, it was like catching up with an old friend.

Cedars are considered a species at risk in Nova Scotia, growing in perhaps 30 known stands from Yarmouth to Oxford counties, a belt of lime green along our western shore. How populous they were historically and how substantially they’ve declined are things we simply don’t know, but that they’ve declined at all seems beyond doubt.

Alain Belliveau is a botanist with the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, a charity with the simple mandate of taking stock — of plants, of animals, of all that makes up the ecosystems of Atlantic Canada. And while their database contains a staggering 1.4 million records available for conservation purposes, very few concern the elusive cedars of Nova Scotia.

When Alain does hunt for cedar, it tends to be on his own time, and the stands he visits are occasionally bordered by lands cleared for the sake of development or agriculture, where other cedars almost certainly once stood. Other times, he finds their stumps, clear signs of a gradual decline. The Eastern white cedar is a “vulnerable” species under provincial law, illegal to cut on private or public land, but in Alain’s estimation the problem isn’t with the legality, but instead with public awareness.

“I’ve talked to people who were shocked to hear that cedar is a species at risk,” he said.

The first step to conserving any species is to inventory how many are left and where they’ve taken refuge, but in the case of this tree that doesn’t seem to have happened. Without such records, a species at risk might be destroyed by accident, as Alain’s stumps imply. And what’s more, there are likely a considerable number unaccounted for.

“I’ve been spending one day a year for the last couple years looking for cedar in Nova Scotia,” said Alain. “I find a new stand every time, so I figure if it’s that easy, there must be more of it around.”

On a day in early February Alain and I travelled outside Middleton, right along the Annapolis River, trudging through snow with open farmland on our left and public forest on our right. The day was gorgeous and chilly, and as we walked Alain kept his eyes trained on the treeline beside us, scanning its interior with professional curiosity. I would describe him as a young man, passionate and modest with talents I found extraordinary. He could read the health, history and composition of this ecosystem where I saw only a mess of branches, identifying species I couldn’t spot with a field guide.

The Eastern whitie cedar is rare and endangered in Nova Scotia despite the overwhelming population in Central Canada.

“It shouldn’t be hard to find 300 trees,” he said with some eagerness. The stand we were hunting was recorded in 2003 by the Department of Natural Resources but apparently not much was known about it, except that it possessed an estimated 300 cedars.

Finally we spotted one, an infant, savouring the sunlight beneath a spruce just off our trail. And another a few minutes on, this one relatively mature but again, entirely on its own.

We continued down the trail until the field on our left gave way to more forest, towering trees bordering us on both sides. As we walked, Alain explained the difference between red and white pine, his lesson cut short when a slope to our right caught his attention. In an instant he was at the bottom and out of sight, me trying desperately to keep up with this botanical bloodhound.

At the slope’s bottom we found a stretch of relative flatness just on the dry side of a swamp, and suddenly I was a teenager again. In front of us were considerably more than 300 cedars, extending with remarkable purity to the bank of the Annapolis River. Alain had told me that cedar stands tend to be mixed and, indeed, there was the occasional red maple, hemlock or white ash. But mixed is hardly the word I’d use to describe it. Here at least, cedar was king.

The Eastern white cedar is a somewhat picky plant, preferring habitat with low acidity and plenty of calcium, both scarcities in Nova Scotia, which might help explain their small number. But what’s true of the cedar is also true of rare plants with similar preferences, such as the wild leek and blue cohosh, clustered together on suitable sites like this one across western Nova Scotia. The 300 cedars proved this to be a place of outstanding conservation value, but not for cedars alone.

Wetting our feet almost immediately, we waded into this stand, the ground either levelled by ice or squishy with moist moss, and when we reached the Annapolis River I began taking photographs. While I worked Alain disappeared for 30 minutes, walking this stand’s border, which took him well downriver before looping back. Science waits for no man, myself included.

I caught up with him and helped circumnavigate the cedars in full, giving us the approximate area they covered —about five hectares. Then we measured the stand’s density, counting the number of cedars in small, random plots and using those to estimate the total population. It was well over 2,000 strong.

But something wasn’t quite right. As we counted the cedars in our random plots it quickly became apparent how many of them were dead — the majority in some cases — reducing our population estimate to 1,500. Whether this was a sign of ecological illness or a natural step in the forest’s development, Alain couldn’t say. And then there was the complete lack of cedar seedlings, perhaps grazed away by deer or livestock. This theory was bolstered when, alongside the river, we found the unwelcome remains of cow patties. Whatever the meaning of these oddities, Alain hasn’t seen them in other stands he has visited.

When our mapping was finished, Alain suggested this stand could be protected by the local municipal government, requiring only a phone call on their part to the provincial government or a land trust to get started. How seriously he made this suggestion I couldn’t say, but given the rarity of places like this and the illegality of cutting them down, I think it makes an unassailable sense.

We left the stand then, finding our trail and turning back, our cedars out of sight on the left and the smaller forest now on our right giving way to farmland up ahead. But before we reached the field Alain stopped again, squinting into the scrap of forest to our right. I followed his gaze and picked out the lime green of the cedar, and the bloodhound was off again, me pursuing through the foliage.

What we found left me dumbstruck. Here, separated by hundreds of metres of high ground and multitudes of pine, stood another cedar fen, previously unknown to the scientific community, as far as Alain could tell. Without employing our counting tools we couldn’t be sure how many were here, but I’ll guess just shy of another thousand.

The Eastern white cedar is one of many species at risk in our small province, but it’s perhaps the only one this easily found, provided that you’re looking for it. Alain’s claims of discovering new stands were thus validated for me and, as though this stand in particular was conspiring to prove all his points, we immediately came across the chainsawed stumps of this species and others, perhaps cut by someone none the wiser.

Whether the conservation of this species is undertaken by our provincial government, by charities like Alain’s or by private citizens, we can’t protect what we don’t know exists. Alain told me that most of the cedar stands he has “discovered” were common knowledge to people in the area, people who could have reported and perhaps safeguarded them earlier, if only they’d known of the tree’s scarcity.

It might be that the Eastern white cedar is doing better or worse than we realize, or that it’s suffering regular losses which are entirely preventable. Photographing cedar stands and calling them in could make all the difference. Let the cedar hunt begin.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of the Endangered Perspective. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. If you know of a wild cedar stand you’d like to report, you’re encouraged to call the Species at Risk hotline at 1-866-727-3447 or email

Re: Have you seen this tree? Taking stock of the Eastern whi

Posted: Mon Mar 13, 2017 2:12 pm
by Erik Danielsen
I have an active intention to do an east-west road trip of the range of Thuja occidentalis someday. Maybe write something about it, the species has always played on my sense of mystery in ways that are hard to articulate. Thanks for posting, I will definitely have to file this in the planning notes... maybe even get in touch with the author or subject.

Re: Have you seen this tree? Taking stock of the Eastern whi

Posted: Fri Sep 21, 2018 12:23 pm
by Lucas