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How the Arborvitae Got Its Name

Thuja occidentalis, the tree of life!

Scurvy is a very serious disease. We hear very little about it these days, but it was endemic among European sailors well into the 19th century. At the time, no one knew the origin of this disease, but it was associated with times of war and long sea voyages. The recommended treatment at the time? Prayer! Sadly, soldiers and sailors suffering from scurvy inevitably died despite the prayers.

Today we know that scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, found in many fruits and vegetables, but missing in food supplied to soldiers and sailors of the time. Their diet, mostly composed of biscuits, salted meat and fish, was totally lacking in fresh vegetables. At the time, of course, nothing was known about vitamins, but it was noticed that sailors often recovered from scurvy when they set foot on land and sick sailors would sometimes be dropped off on remote islands to recover. Some authorities even seemed aware that the recovery was fastest in summer and autumn, when fruits and vegetables were plentiful, and slower in winter and spring, when people lived mainly on bread and meat. Although the Spanish had discovered as early as 1497 that eating citrus fruit (rich in vitamin C) could cure the disease, they felt no compulsion to share that information with their enemies.

Jacques Cartier’s Experience

Jacques Cartier

Scurvy struck French explorer Jacques Cartier and his men on their second trip to Canada in 1535-1536. In fact, 25 of his crew of 110 men died of the disease and he himself suffered from it. At first he was unwilling to reveal the health status of his men to the local natives lest they take advantage of their weakness, but when situation worsened with the arrival of winter, he had no choice but to ask for their help. The Amerindians gave the sick men a herbal tea made from the leaves of a local conifer they called “annedda” or “aneda” (later it was determined to be Thuja occidentalis). The recovery was very fast: in just a few days, even men apparently dying began to recover fully. Cartier called this miraculous plant “arborvitae”, latin for “tree of life”, and promoted it highly on his return to France. In spite of his accolades, he never actually described the tree beyond stating it was an evergreen, leading to considerable confusion.

72 Years Later

France’s attempts to establish colonies in Canada failed repeatedly. However, when Samuel de Champlain arrived at Stadacona (now Quebec City) 72 years later with yet another attempt to found a colony (and this one would be successful), he was quick to ask the local tribes about annedda. He had studied Cartier’s writings and thought he could make it rich by harvesting this plant and exporting it to Europe. But much to his dismay, the local Amerindians had no knowledge of any plant bearing that name. Champlain complained they had lost all knowledge of medicine since the time of Cartier, but that was not the problem. Instead, he was talking to the wrong tribe. By 1608, the St. Lawrence Iroquoian tribe Cartier met had mysteriously disappeared. Champlain was instead dealing with the Hurons, who had taken their place, and annedda meant nothing to them. Champlain had to fall back on the fur trade to finance his expeditions and both the annedda and the arborvitae were essentially forgotten, only to be seen as footnotes in the annals of history.

Arborvitae and Cedar: Two Names for the Same Tree

By a curious coincidence, while the French forgot Cartier’s praise of the arborvitae and the name arborvitae never caught on in the French language, that wasn’t the case everywhere.

Cedrus atlantica: the true cedar.

In England, the name arborvitae was readily adopted for this new conifer with flattened scales that was so different from any conifer known in Europe at that time. However, T. occidentalis also came to be commonly called “cedar” or “white cedar”, even though the true cedar (Cedrus atlantica) is a very different tree. How did that happen?

Thuja occidentalis: arborvitae or white cedar.

At the time, the true cedar (Cedrus) was not grown in England, so no one there knew what it looked like. The British were however familiar with the cedar boxes that were frequently imported from the Middle East. Since the wood of arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) has a similar scent, color and texture to cedar wood, people began calling T. occidentalis cedar. The error was carried to Britain’s North American colonies and remains a source of confusion even to this day.

I personally try not to use the word “cedar” unless I’m dealing with a Cedrus. Arborvitae is well understood everywhere as common name for Thuja occidentalis, leads to no confusion and besides, it’s a damn fine name with a wonderful history behind it. After all, how many other plants have a name as noble as “tree of life”?


6 comments on “How the Arborvitae Got Its Name

  1. Andrea Wilder

    A very beautiful tree, Thuja or Thuya. I have planted 3 of them,
    I hope they live forever.

  2. Thuja sp…a great collection of mature Thuja at the Arnold Arboretum, thank you for the botanical story!

    • I get to go to the Arboretum pretty much every year… but I’m leading a tour group, so have no time to visit on my own and have yet to see the thujas. One day I’d love to spend a full two days there.

      • Conifer collection below Bussey Hill along a creek on the way to Peters Hill. But the last time I was there…1980s. Trees were 80 yrs old then–mature character all. Maybe they cleaned up?!

  3. I’m sorry to say I had to take all ours out because of deer. 🙁

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