Just looking at an Arborvitae, and it’s not hard to see how this stately tree earned a name like the “tree of life”. Just looking at a tall and proud arborvitae, you can feel the life and history a tree of that stature brings. It’s easy to say that any home that features one will have an added element of elegance - but it is one that requires surprisingly little work.


Thuja is the genus name for arborvitae, and it can be traced back to the Greek word for “perfume”. As this name implies, these trees have an intoxicating, fresh, and woodsy aroma emanating from their little, scaly leaves that flare out into a fan shape.

Depending on the cultivar, you can find arborvitae in many different shapes and sizes. You can see them as round, boxed, or cylindrical trees, but they are traditionally seen in a cone shape. Where size is concerned, they can range from smaller dwarf varieties to towering giants over 70’ tall. No matter the size or shape, though, they can be easily trained, so they are excellent choices for hedges or even topiary art.

Photo by: (Dieter Schlack) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by: (Dieter Schlack) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thujas can also range in hardiness, depending on the variety selected. Thuja plicata varieties, also known as Western Red Cedars or Giant Arborvitaes, aren’t typically as hardy. While they may grow taller more quickly, they prefer more temperate climates and tend to be only as hardy as Zone 5. Thuja occidentalis varieties, however, tend to be much more cold-hardy and can be found growing in as low as Zone 2. They can stand the chill a fair bit more, but they’re also a slower growing tree that likely won’t reach heights quite as high.

The “Tree of Life”

The name “tree of life” was bestowed upon the thuja by early French settlers in their visits to the Americas. After many tireless months crossing the ocean, a large number of passengers and crew were plagued with scurvy. Close to death and eagerly searching for a cure, the travelers looked to the local natives, who quickly brewed a tea made from the leaves of a thuja. The patients recovered and this miraculous tree was appropriately titled.

While it may have seemed like a miracle at the time, there is a scientific reason why this tea worked so spectacularly. Years later, scientists discovered that the leaves of an arborvitae contain very high levels of vitamin C. Since scurvy develops in the body due to a lack of this vitamin, a strong, healthy dose of it is sure to combat the disease.

Science may have discovered high levels of vitamin C, but they also found strong levels of a neurotoxin known as thujone. This chemical can be poisonous in high doses, so brewing a cup of vitamin C from arborvitae should be avoided.

Growing Arborvitae

Arborvitaes are easy to grow and very low-maintenance, making them a perfect addition to almost any yard. Start by finding a spot in your yard that is full to part sun to begin planting. The more sun you give these trees, the more they will reward you with thick and full growth, as shady spots tend to grow sparsely. Plant in early spring or fall, when the sun isn’t hot enough to stress growing roots.

Thujas like their roots to be kept moist, but not wet, so rich and well-draining soil is a must when planting. To save time from constant watering, a 2” layer of mulch will help to regulate moisture and temperature in the soil to keep your tree from drying out. When mulching around a tree, remember to keep about an inch of uncovered soil directly around the trunk, as the mulch can cause the bark to rot.

While it is setting its roots, an arborvitae should be watered regularly. After it is established, though, regular rainfall should be enough unless the weather has been particularly dry. When the weather is dry, be sure to check your tree for bagworms and spider mites. These tiny pests attack when trees are weakened and vulnerable.

Unlike many other trees and shrubs, arborvitaes don’t need annual pruning to grow. The only pruning required for these trees are purely aesthetic for shaping. If shaping is something you would like to do, prune in the fall, being careful never to take off more than one-third of growth.


Arborvitaes are grandiose trees that create a powerful presence in any yard. As elegant as they appear, they are low-maintenance and easy to care for, making elegance simple to achieve. For more information on these stately trees or to bring one home, we’d be happy to help you get started at the garden center today.