The red cedar is a coniferous tree that exists primarily from southern Alaska to the northernmost areas of California. These trees grow in damp conditions, which can range from the water's edge to areas as high as 1500 metres inland, typically shallow slopes near creeks and rivers or at the edge of lakes. The tallest trees are found in areas where the soil is moist, and where their roots can run deep. In these places, clusters of red cedar can be found within a towering canopy, with little foliage between the ground shrubs and the high leaves of the cedar.
The red cedar can reach heights of up to 70 metres, have a trunk diameter of 4.5 metres and be as old as 1000 years. Unfortunately, these old-growth trees are harder to come by, as logging and habitat destruction plague the trees. The leaves of the red cedar are smooth to the touch and tend to grow in opposite pairs, away from the branch. These leaves are connected to large, slim branches that are very strong and flexible.
The interior of the red cedar contains an oil that is toxic to most fungi. This oil allows the tree to resist rot, which is very common in the moist forests of the Northwest Coast. Due to this unique quality, a mature cedar that falls in the forest may remain on the forest floor for many decades without decomposing. Interestingly, due to the lack of this oil in red cedar saplings, mature trees will often have a rotten centre that was created during their early stages of life.
The red cedar is composed of many layers-each being utilized by the Stó:lō people. The hard outer bark was used for canoe bailers, while the fibrous inner bark could be used for diapers and tissues-shredded and pounded bark was also used for clothing. The inner wood of the red cedar was widely sought for use in canoe building. The limbs of the red cedar were used for rope; the roots were used in the production of baskets and the boughs for mats in the longhouse.