Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Monday, July 30, 2007

America's Atlantic white cedar swamps

Brief history of the Atlantic white cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides


When the first European settlers came to North America, they found a new-world member of the cypress family. It grew densely, often in pure stands, in the swamplands of the Atlantic coast. This tree was the Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides,) and its range once stretched from present-day Maine to upper Florida and along parts of the Gulf coast.

The Atlantic white cedar is a tall, straight-growing tree. The settlers soon learned that its wood was resistant to rot and insects, light in weight, and easy to tool. They used Atlantic white cedar lumber for many purposes -- shingles, flooring, furniture, buckets, barrels, shipbuilding, docks, and more.

As time went by, the swamps were cleared of larger trees, then of smaller ones. The trees grew so closely together in dense clumps that it was often hard to cut them one at a time.

Some swamps and former swamps were mined for fallen trees from earlier times that were covered over by earth, peat, silt or muck. The wood of these fallen, buried trees was still sound, though it had been buried for many years.

One of the largest caches of or buried Atlantic white cedar was discovered in the vicinity of Dennisville, New Jersey, in 1812. Some of the trunks pulled out of the Dennisville swamps were as large as 6 feet in diameter, and it was common to find trunks 4 feet in diameter.

The mining of the swamps provided employment to Dennisville residents through the late 1880's. Many of the mined trees were used as shingles; well over half a million shingles were produced in some years. Some of the larger logs were cut into boards.

In Joseph S. Illick's 1926 book, Common Trees of New Jersey, he mentions that Atlantic white cedars were being used as a substitute for chestnut telephone poles because chestnut was becoming hard to find (due to the blight, no doubt.)

Today, Atlantic white cedar swamps have been reduced to about 20% of their original area. Much of the swampland has been cleared and drained for agricultural purposes and various sorts of development. In recent years, interest has grown in restoration of white cedar swamps where possible, and preservation of white cedar swamps that still exist.

The American white cedar is sometimes grown as an ornamental. Many cultivars are available, including blue varieties, dark green varieties, and others with fuzzy-looking foliage. If you have a boggy, swampy area to plant, this would be a tree to consider.

Historic accounts of Atlantic white cedar mining in New Jersey:
History of the Lumber Industry in America (pages 493-495)
Manufacturer and Builder: "The Buried Forests of New Jersey"

More reading about Atlantic white cedar swamps
White Cedar Swamp, Cape Cod National Seashore
Peatland Atlantic white cedar forests in Virginia
White cedar swamp restoration in South Carolina
Trees of the Maritime Forest: Chamaecyparis thyoides
Chamaecyparis thyoides info from U.S. Forest Service database

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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