The parent council at High Park school is embarking on an ambitious project to create an outdoor learning space on the east end of their spacious grounds. In addition to planting trees, plans are in the works for pathways, boulders, a pergola and raised garden beds.
In selecting trees for the project, the parent council asked for trees that were clean, drought tolerant, free of insects and bees, low maintenance and big enough so they would not be subject to vandalism. And to honour Indigenous Canadian culture, they asked specifically for a few cedars trees.
In home landscapes, cedars are not overly popular. They are not pretty and have little wow factor, but cedars are practical, easy to grow, provide a valuable home for birds, and provide good screening for privacy and hedging.
For Indigenous Canadians, cedars have significant meaning. In British Columbia, the western red cedar (Thuja plicata), sometimes called Tree of Life, has both cultural and spiritual significance. In Ontario and throughout the northeastern states and provinces, white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is highly revered by Aboriginal Canadians.
In Canadian history, all parts of cedars were used for many purposes. Roots were used for medicine and making baskets. The outer bark was used for roofing and making tools. Inner bark was used for weaving in furniture and basket making, and was also used to make clothing and tea.
Cedar foliage was used for medicine, fragrance, bedding, smoking food and smudging. Limbs were used to make rope and bindings. Oil has been extracted from cedars for use as an antibiotic and for medicinal tea.
The harvesting of cedars was carried out with deep respect for the health and longevity of the plant. With the exception of lumber, all parts of the cedar were frugally removed in such a way to ensure the tree would supply the community for years to come.
We all know that cedar wood is long lasting and highly valued in the lumber industry. Its wood is lightweight with straight grain. It has its own built-in preservatives, making it perfect for pillars, totem poles and framing.
Cedar lumber has been used to make boxes, crates, watercrafts and shelters. Talented crafters could even make waterproof cookware from cedar wood.
In the forest, cedars provide food and shelter for birds of all kinds. British Columbia’s red cedars are critical homes for owls and bats.
Cedars will grow in almost any soil conditions and are one of the few conifers that will grow in swampy soil. They prefer sun but will tolerate living deep in a heavily shaded forest.
In the forest, mature cedars have a tall bare trunk leading to a canopy of dense green foliage that protects the undergrowth and soil below.
Cedars have their own method of soil moisture retention. They will drop up to one-third of their evergreen foliage per year, leaving a dense layer of long-lasting mulch below. Fallen brown foliage is quickly replaced by even more new growth in spring.