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Delaware’s largest white cedar tree was discovered downstate

Matt Kane
The Nature Conservancy

Delaware’s largest Atlantic white cedar tree was recently discovered at The Nature Conservancy’s Pemberton Forest Preserve in Sussex County.

Atlantic white cedar wetlands are a habitat of concern due to centuries of development and land conversion, including heavy logging practices, and sea level rise accelerated by climate change.

States across the East Coast are working to restore the wetlands, with some states seeing only a fraction of the trees that were once present.

In New Jersey, for example, Atlantic white cedar once occupied over 125,000 acres. It’s now down to less than 25,000.

That’s why finding a large Atlantic white cedar is a huge win for these conservation efforts.

The one at Pemberton Forest Preserve is 38 inches in diameter. Others recently measured in the state ranged from 25-36 inches.

The Nature Conservancy’s Delaware Stewardship Manager Natasha Whetzel says many state and globally rare plants - such as the federally threatened swamp pink and the yellow crested orchid - show up in Atlantic white cedar swamps.

“The Atlantic white cedar is actually the host plant for a state endangered butterfly called the Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly," said Whetzel. "And what’s pretty cool is this butterfly was found just last year for the first time in 27 years in Delaware in one of our other preserves in Southern Delaware.”

The Hessel’s hairstreak caterpillar feeds exclusively on the Atlantic white cedar.

At the Pemberton Forest Preserve, some of TNC’s restoration and preservation efforts include strategic thinning and native plantings.

Whetzel says their last Atlantic white cedar planting was in 2018.

“We are planning to do more of those in the future through our volunteer program so there are other opportunities for folks to come out and help with lots of different activities, whether it be tree planting and maintenance or trash cleanups,” she explained.

The state’s largest Atlantic white cedar can be found at Ponders Tract, a public trail system spanning more than 900 acres within the Pemberton Forest Preserve.

Quinn Kirkpatrick was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, and graduated from the University of Delaware. She joined Delaware Public Media in June 2021.