Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis, Cupressaceae family) is ubiquitous in the Northeastern North American landscape. It is especially common in urban settings. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the average urban dweller in the Northeast wouldn’t have to travel more than 50 paces outside their front door before encountering a cedar hedge. As a fast-growing, hardy conifer that holds up well in cold climates, it’s a popular landscaping choice for living fences and privacy screens in residential areas. It is so common that its presence seems a bit dull and boring, a little too homogeneous.
It is easy to overlook and undervalue something so banal. There is nothing exotic or rare about a plant that we see everywhere, everyday, so much so that we lose our awareness of it until it fades into the background as just another piece of the wall of green. What sacred mysteries could this mundane plant possibly hold?
But one only needs to, literally, scratch the surface to discover the wonders of this plant. Take a close look at the scaly leaves of a cedar bough. Studded along the upper and underside of the leaves are tiny glands that are just visible to the naked eye, but are best viewed under a hand lens. Each of these glands contain essential oils that are released when you scratch the glands with your thumbnail. The essential oil contains a number of chemicals including: alpha-pinene, alpha-fenchene, camphene, sabinene, beta-mycrene, limonene, alpha-fenchone, alpha-thujone, beta-thujone, camphor and bornyl acetate. (1)
These potent phytochemicals have many beneficial medicinal properties in the human body. They are antimicrobial, active against bacterial, viral and fungal pathogens. They have immune-stimulating properties and act as adjuvants to prescription antibiotics for upper respiratory tract infections.(2) Arthur Haines writes that cedar enhances the immune system through, “increased white blood cell count, increased cytokines and antibody production, activation of macrophages”, and that “taken prior to or at the onset of cold and flu symptoms, Thuja occidentalis has the capacity to shorten the duration of symptoms.” Cedar also has an expectorant action aiding in chest congestion, boggy lungs and phlegmy coughs.
Exceptionally high in vitamin C, one of the other common names for this plant is arborvitae, which means ‘tree of life’. Tales have come down through history, recounting how early explorers and settlers to the New World suffered from scurvy and Native Americans taught them to drink tea made from cedar and other conifers, to treat and prevent the disease. It is hard for us, with easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables all year round, to imagine now how deadly this disease was, and how miraculous such a simple cure would seem to those suffering from it. Tree of Life, indeed.
Topically, the plant is beneficial as a wash for wounds and skin irritations such as fungal infections. Traditionally, cedar has been used on warts and cold sores.The Eclectics used cedar for ulcers, bed sores, mouth sores, varicose veins and gangrene. Some First Nations communities would dry and powder the leaves to use as a poultice for skin conditions.
Cedar is a scared plant to Native Americans and is used for medicinal, household and ceremonial purposes. Traditionally, the Algonquin used an infusion of the leaves to give to children with colic. The Abnaki, Algonquin and Iroquois treated rheumatic complaints with topical applications of the plant. The wood was used for canoe slats and ribs. The bark was used for weaving and cordage. Leaves were used in steam baths and burned to fumigate living spaces and as incense fore ceremonial purposes. The tree was worshipped and revered for it usefulness.(3)
Incorporating cedar into your home apothecary is easy. The plant is soluble in water, alcohol and oil. Leaves can be harvested with the proper tools and care and dried for use as a simple tea. Keep your tea covered while steeping to prevent the volatile oils from escaping. I love adding cedar to my baths in the winter time for the warming, circulatory stimulating and mild pain relieving properties. Cedar foot baths are lovely too. I simmer a few good handfuls of leaves in a pot on the stove for about 20 minutes or so and strain the decoction into my bathwater or foot bath. As an herbal steam, cedar is wonderfully aromatic and helpful in breaking up sinus and chest congestion. To prepare, crush a handful of leaves into a large bowl and pour boiling water over the leaves. Being careful to not burn yourself, position your head over the bowl and cover both your head and the bowl with a large towel. Gently breathe in the steam. Pine and fir needles are a nice addition to this steam as are a few drops of essential oils such as eucalyptus, tea tree, rosemary, sage etc. Try regular applications of a cedar tincture on warts and fungal infections. Take small doses in hot water at the onset of a cold or flu. Cedar infused oil smells great and is also useful for fungal issues and other skin irritations. Making your own smudge sticks from cedar is easy. I use them at the start of my yoga practice and throughout the day to help focus my attention and shift my mood. Simply being near cedar has benefits too, especially for people with heart disease. Diana Beresford-Kroeger writes that, on a warm summer’s day, “the trees will release fenchone and both alpha and beta-thujone into the immediate environment. These chemicals are strong cardiac muscle stimulants and will help the heart in its pumping function…White cedar also produces camphene and camphor, which are broncholdilators and improve the breathing of all those suffering from chronic lung problems.”
The next time you pass that plain cedar hedge, stop a moment to admire a bough, scratch and sniff a leaf and inhale the essential oils and perhaps bring some home and get to know this scared plant.
Occasional, moderate use of this plant can be very beneficial, but because of the thujone content, cedar should not be used in excessive amounts for prolonged periods of time and is best avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women.
For folks living on the West coast, Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) has similar uses.
Avoid harvesting from areas high in pollution and contamination and do not harvest from private property without permission.
(1) Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest, Diana Beresford-Kroeger
(2) Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants of the Northeast Vol. I, Arthur Haines
(3) Native American Ethnobotany: Daniel E. Moerman