"North Pole" arborvitae is the brand name of a shrub technically known as Thuja occidentalis 'Art Boe.' That cultivar name comes from the plant developer responsible for its existence, Arthur Boe. You have to admit the brand name is catchier, which is why it's more commonly used (sorry, Arthur).
What It Is and How It Grows
A coniferous, needled evergreen, North Pole arborvitae grows in a columnar shape, achieving a mature height of 10-15 feet (with a spread only about half of that). Technically a shrub, many people refer to it casually as a "tree" (since it's tall and slim), which is why I speak of the plant in my title as a good street tree (more on that below under Growing Conditions).
The dark green foliage is dense, making it effective in living privacy fences, whether loosely planted amongst other shrubs or installed as hedge plants. When I received my trial plants from the nursery, they were less than 1 foot tall; after three years in my landscaping, those that survived (see below under Growing Conditions) had reached 3 feet in height. They also bore cones by the third year.
Growing Conditions for North Pole Arborvitae
The shrub is suited to growing zones 3-7. Grow it in full to partial sun and in a well-drained but adequately-watered soil. In hot climates, it will profit from a bit of shade. North Pole arborvitae tolerates pollution, suggesting it could be a good street tree, as long as the area isn't especially prone to high winds. A further argument for this use is its resistance to winter burn, a problem that plagues arborvitae, generally speaking. It is all too common to encounter an arborvitae suffering browning in its leaves due to harsh winter conditions.
North Pole was advertised as being relatively resistant to this problem, so I decided to put my trial plants to the test. I planted the four of them in a very inhospitable environment to see how well they would hold up. Not only were they planted in an exposed spot alongside a road that is heavily salted in winter, but this patch of ground has poor soil. Moreover, it's difficult for us to irrigate this area very well, so the plants often go thirsty.
In spite of their having to endure such rigors, two of the four shrubs survived. Frankly, I was prepared to lose all four, so I considered my experiment a great success: that is, I established to my satisfaction that North Pole arborvitae is a relatively good street tree for a needled evergreen. In addition, the two survivors suffered very little winter burn.
So If It's a Needled Evergreen, Where Are the Needles?
North Pole arborvitae is considered a "needled" evergreen, as opposed to a "broadleaf" (or "broad-leaved") evergreen. But if pine needles, for example, come to mind when you hear "needled," you may be taken aback by arborvitae's leaves. The leaves are scaly and are grouped in flattened sprays. They're not pointy and don't resemble pins, making "needles" something of a misnomer.
More on the Names
People who know that "arborvitae" is a Latin word sometimes mistake it for the shrub's botanical name. But it is, in fact, one of the plant's common names, Thuja being the correct term for the genus. Another common name is "white cedar," even though it's not a true cedar.
"Arborvitae" translates as "tree of life," a reference to the fact that Jacques Cartier's men used it for medicinal purposes. The French were suffering from scurvy on their explorations of the Saint Lawrence River area (16th century) and learned from the native population that the needles of Thuja occidentalis could be boiled to make a scurvy-fighting (and life-saving) drink, thanks to their Vitamin-C content.
To learn about a different type of arborvitae, see my article on Emerald Green arborvitae.