Some trees such as arborvitae (Thuja spp.) make effective windscreens, breaking the wind's force by absorbing it. Arborvitae will grow into a dense barrier that screens undesirable sights, muffles sounds and absorbs wind. Arborvitae, meaning tree of life, was named as such because Native Americans and early settlers once used the vitamin C-rich foliage to treat scurvy. Most arborvitae hybrids grown today belong to the American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) or to the western red cedar, also known as Pacific red cedar, (Thuja plicata) species. Although most varieties within each species mature slowly, some notable exceptions exist.
The western red cedar cultivar "Green Giant" (Thuja plicata "Green Giant"), under optimal conditions, can add more than 3 feet in height each year, eventually reaching 50 feet. Like others in its species, the plant flourishes in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 to 9. "Green Giant" retains its color through the winter and features slender, drooping branchlets that spread broadly. If planting a row of these, make sure they are spaced at least 10 feet apart.
Other Western Red Cedars
The species plant and two of its hybrids, "Sunshine" (Thuja plicata "Sunshine") and "Spring Grove" (Thuja plicata "Spring Grove"), grow fast and are not eaten by deer. Select their sites carefully because western red cedar may live more than 1,400 years. "Sunshine" with its golden tipped branches, grows to 60 to 70 feet tall. Western red cedar, the species plant, rarely reaches 70 feet in the home landscape, while in the wild it grows to 200 feet. "Spring Grove" may attain 40 feet in height. These cultivars should be spaced at least 10 feet apart and thrive in USDA zones 5 to 9 As a bonus, foliage on western red cedar has a pleasant, fruity aroma. Unfortunately, some people experience allergic reactions after contact with the foliage.
American Arborvitae Hybrids
"Pyramidal" (Thuja occidentalis "Pyramidal") and "Brandon" (Thuja occidentalis "Brandon") have rapid growth in common. A highly versatile columnar evergreen, "Pyramidal" averages 12 to 25 feet tall when mature. Slightly shorter, "Brandon" typically attains a height of 12 to 15 feet. More winter hardy than western red cedar, "Pyramidal" and "Brandon" thrive in USDA zones 3 to 8. These trees can be planted closer together -- "Pyramidal" only spreads to 3 to 6 feet, while "Brandon" spreads to 6 to 8 feet. American arborvitae varieties need moist air to look their best.
Arborvitae's ability to absorb wind force makes it superior to solid walls and fences, which the wind blows over. Evergreens with branches growing all the way to the ground form better screens than other trees. While their primary job may be protection from wind damage, plants that take hold quickly can also restrain banks and keep soil from eroding. In addition, they provide an attractive vista and shelter birds and other wildlife.