I spent a fair bit of my childhood perched high in an old cedar tree. I felt held in those dense swooping branches, as if in the arms of a mother. Camouflaged by lush bows, I could view the world from a safe vantage point – my wily brother and his friends unsuspecting below. Since then, cedar has remained a friend and guardian. When I venture to other places in the world it is the cedar tree that I miss most – its smell and shape a hallmark of home.
Scientific name: Thuja plicata
Identifying Cedar: Cedar is a distinctive tall evergreen tree with a drooping leader, a wide buttressing base, and a fibrous, fluted trunk with gray to cinnamon-red bark. Greenish-yellow leaves are flat with opposite scales. Branches are often J-shaped. Simple round flowers bloom in late autumn and give the tree a golden appearance. Last October I walked outside on a clear day and was disoriented by the hazy golden color of the air despite blue skies. I quickly realized that the giant cedar across the street was puffing out a thick cloud of pollen that left a yellow coat on my car and other objects nearby. Cedar seed cones have 8-12 scales, are about ½ inch long, and are shaped like rosebuds. They are ingeniously engineered to funnel those pollen grains in like wind turbines. The largest cedar trees are up to 19 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall. Some of the oldest trees are thought to be as much as 1,000 years old.
Where it grows: Cedar thrives in moist soils along bottoms, flats and mountain slopes. It prefers wet, misty forest and is very common on the west side of the Cascade Mountains from Northern California up into S.E. Alaska. It grows in wetter areas east of the Cascades toward Western Montana and Idaho.
When and how to harvest: All parts of cedar are useful and highly valued including the wood, bark, roots, branches and leaves. Since whole books have been written about the many uses of cedar, I will focus on ways to use the leaves. I prefer to gather them in late summer or early fall when the weather is warm and their aromatic oil content is highest. That being said, you can use their ever-green leaves any time of year. I carefully prune small fan-like branches here and there so I do not leave a visible impact.
Leaves can be used fresh or they can be dried by bundling several small branches with a rubber band then hanging them, or placing them on baskets in a dry place with good ventilation. Keep them whole, and then crush them just before you use them to retain the fragrant oils. Store in a paper bag or glass jar.
Salish names for Western red cedar include “Long Life Giver”, “Rich Woman Maker” and “Mother.” Northwest Coastal Native People have artfully fashioned grand longhouses, swift and rot-resistant canoes, durable clothing, watertight baskets, cordage, tools, art, medicine and many other things from cedar. It made possible the rich culture and historic wealth of Northwest Coastal Indian People through providing for them from birth to death.
Cedar bark is prized for its durability, flexibility and water resistance. It is peeled from trees with straight trunks by making a single cut and pulling upward on the trunk. Strips can be as long as 27 feet and are carefully separate into layers. Soft fibers have been used for clothing, mats, napkins and towels. Weavers create beautiful ornate cedar baskets and hats from narrow strands of cedar bark. Outer cedar roots are dug and used in basket making. Branches were traditionally made into rope, fish traps, binding material and baskets. Many native people who do not have cedar trees on reservations gain access through state and federal land partnerships. Protocols for gathering during the correct season, methods for gathering, and ways to honor the tree are still practiced. When walking in the woods you might notice missing strips of bark that can be new or very old. If done correctly, the tree continues to thrive. Older cedar trees are rare and should be protected resources for native people since they are so significant to the culture.
Coastal native peoples use cedar leaf and bark for a wide array of illnesses. The leaves were a popular internal and external medicine for rheumatism. They have also been infused for cough medicine, tuberculosis and fevers. The pitch was used as chewing gum. The leaves make wonderful incense and are used in smudging for purification. Some tribes have used parts of cedar to bring on menstruation and for birth control, but this knowledge is highly protected.
Cedar is currently used for siding, interior finish, greenhouse construction, outdoor furniture, boat building, poles and more. It is rot resistant and long lasting. If you travel through the Olympia rainforest from Aberdeen north to the Makah Reservation you will see many old cedar shake mills. Very few are still running since most of the old forests have been logged.
Cedar Leaf Medicine
Cedar is a powerful antimicrobial. Reflect on where it lives – cool wet forests where fungi and molds thrive. When you scratch cedar leaves or cut the wood, strong essential oils are released. These oils are cedar’s medicine to repel insects, molds, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Our ancestors discovered this long ago and used cedar’s medicine topically and internally to ward off external forces.
Cedar leaf is a useful anti-fungal for skin and nail fungus. The tincture, infused oil or salve can be used topically and should be applied 2-3 times a day until a week after the fungus disappears. Fungal infections are pernicious and need to be treated aggressively. You can also soak your feet in cedar tea by steeping a cup of dried cedar leaves in about 10 cups of hot water. Let the tea steep until it is warm and then place it in a bowl or basin large enough for your feet. Soak your feet for 10-15 minutes – a nice activity when you are reading or watching television.
Cedar has antiviral properties that can help rid the body of warts. It can be applied directly on the wart in the form of an oil, salve, or tincture a couple of times a day for several weeks until the wart separates from healthy skin and falls off or disappears. Homeopathic cedar (Thuja) in ointment or tablet form can also be effective for treating warts.
Cedar promotes immune function through stimulating white blood cell scavenging. Herbalist Adam Seller compares one type called macrophages to little Pac-Men (remember that old video game?) because they chew up pathogens and stimulate a specific immune response. “They can live 40-50 years and help us to break down our old self and build our new self,” says Seller. Through stimulating our immune cells to fight infection, clean up debris and denature cancer cells, we are keeping our tissues healthy. For respiratory infections you can steam with cedar 2-5 times a day (see directions below.) Adam Seller also recommends trying 5 drops of cedar tincture up to 6 times a day along with adaptogen herbs like devil’s club, reishi or figwort root (either Chinese or Western States Scrofularia) for chronic fatigue. Herbalist Michael Moore recommended cedar tincture for chronic intestinal infections. You can drink cedar tea by steeping a tablespoon of fresh or dried chopped cedar leaf per cup of cold water. Let steep several hours to overnight. Drink ¼ to ½ cup twice a day.
Caution: Cedar contains strong volatile oils including thujone, a ketone that is known to be toxic in large quantities. Cedar is strong medicine and should be used with care – the dosage is usually low and it is not used for long periods of time. It should not be used during pregnancy, breastfeeding or with kidney weakness.
Cedar Respiratory Steam
This is one of my favorite ways to fight the winter lung crud including sinus infections and coughs. Here is why I love it:
- Cedar improves blood flow so you can take in more oxygen, clear waste products, and get more nutrients to tissue.
- It activates immune cells, which directly fight microbes and also clean up the waste products of infection.
- Essential oils in cedar inhibit bacterial and fungal growth.
All you need is a few sprigs of cedar, a bowl, scissors, a towel and hot water for steaming. Cut the cedar leaf into small pieces until you have ½ to 1 of a cup in a medium sized bowl. Pour boiled water over the cedar until the bowl is half full. Place your face over the steam at a comfortable distance and cover your head with a towel. Breath deep! Try to steam for at least 5 minutes. Pour more hot water in if necessary. Steam 2-5 times a day. For chronic coughs or sinus congestion steaming more often may be necessary. Variations: Other herbs including fir needle, pine needle, eucalyptus leaf, rosemary, peppermint, yarrow or lavender can also be added. You can add one to two drops of essential oil if desired. Eucalyptus helps to thin mucus, peppermint is anti-inflammatory and rosemary stimulates circulation. Many essential oils including lavender and those mentioned have antimicrobial or immune stimulating properties.
Cedar tincture can be used topically, as a respiratory steam, or as an internal medicine. Please see caution for appropriate use. I recommend weighing the leaves and measuring the alcohol if you are using it internally. If you are using it topically you can simply place the chopped leaf in a jar and cover it with alcohol. If you are making cedar tincture for topical use for someone with sensitive skin you can use glycerin. Instead of using vodka alone for your liquid, use 50% glycerin, 40% water and 10% alcohol (vodka or brandy). Follow the same instructions as below.
1. Finely chop cedar leaves with scissors (the finer the better).
2. Weigh your leaves with a scale and then place them in a glass jar.
3. For every 1 oz. of leaves, measure out 2 ounces of vodka in a cup measure, and then pour it over the leaves. For example: if you have 4 ounces of leaves, you will use 8 ounces of vodka.
4. Label your jar including the date and let it sit for at least two weeks. Shake it every few days and make sure the cedar leaf is below the vodka.
5. Press out with muslin cloth and store in a glass jar. The tincture will last for 7-9 years. For topical applications, apply directly on the skin or place in a spritzer bottle. For internal use take 5-15 drops to thee times a day.
This deep-green aromatic oil smells just like the forest on a warm day. My friend June O’Brien makes the finest oil I have ever smelled and she uses it as a body oil, lamp oil, furniture polish and topical healing remedy.
1. Finely chop fresh cedar leaves and place them in a double boiler. If you do not have a double boiler you can create your own by adding a little water to a larger pot and then placing a smaller pot inside it. This helps to warm the oil gently so it does not overheat.
2. Place the cedar leaf in the smaller pot and just cover with extra virgin olive oil. You can use other rendered oils including coconut, grape seed, jojoba or even lard if you prefer.
3. Gently heat the oil so that it gets warm but doesn’t boil. Turn the pot on and off several times throughout the day. Warm the oil for several days to a week so that it becomes dark green and smells strongly of cedar.
4. Strain the cedar oil with muslin cloth. Compost the pressed leaf and place the oil in a glass jar. 5. Label and store in a cool dark place. Cedar oil will usually last several years.
Other varieties of cedar:
Our “cedars” in the Pacific Northwest are not true cedars (trees with needles that are in the pine family); they have scale-like leaves and belong in the Cypress family. Each has its unique fragrance and form, but they can all be used for respiratory steams, infused oils and incense. Incense Cedar – This beautiful cedar thrives in both dry and wet landscapes from Northern California to Mount Hood in Oregon. While it does not grow wild in Washington, I am including it because it has become a popular ornamental tree. Incense cedar does not grow in flat sprays like Western red and Port Orford cedar – it appears to have wild branches that turn in different directions – a wild hair-do of sorts. The cones look like a duckbill with a tongue sticking out or a trident. Incense cedar is very fragrant and makes a beautiful smelling infused oil and incense.
Port Orford Cedar – Wild Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) only grows along the coast of southern Oregon and northern California, but there are over 200 horticultural varieties that are commonly found in yards, parks, and public spaces in our area. The foliage is made of fine blue-green scale-like leaves that are only 1/16 of an inch long. The underside of the leaves may have a distinct white X pattern. Sprays are feathery looking and flat. Cones are round and similar in appearance to yellow cedar. Port Orford cedar wood was highly prized because it is so strong, rot resistant, and insect resistant. It was used for boatbuilding and many other purposes. Unfortunately overharvesting and a root rot fungus that was introduced from nursery stock have made the wild tree rare. You can use horticultural varieties in a similar way to other cedars.
Yellow Cedar – Where Western red cedar thrives in the coastal lowlands, yellow cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) thrives in mountains between 2,500-6,000 feet from S.E. Alaska down into Oregon. Yellow cedar has grayish soft bark, yellow wood, and very long downward drooping ranches. It can live to be 1,500 years old! Sharp spreading tips are prickly when you run your hand up them, unlike the smooth leaves of Western red cedar. Berry-like cones are round and 1/3 inch in diameter. Flexible drooping branches do not break easily in snow or intense mountain wind. Yellow cedar is used medicinally in many of the same ways as Western red cedar. The wood is harder, lighter, and stronger with a fine, even grain. It is prized for making canoe paddles. The inner bark is also tougher and is sought after for making baskets and clothing.
Western Red Cedar
I am the heat of your hearth on the cold winter nights, the friendly shade screening you from summer sun, and the dancing bows that capture your imagination. I am the beam that holds your house, the board of your table, and the roof that shelters you from rain. I am the handle of your shovel, the bark of your basket, and the hull of your canoe. I am the medicine that heals you, the incense that carries your prayers, and tea that is used to cleanse your home. I am the wood of your cradle and the shell of your coffin. I am the breath of kindness and the flower of beauty. “Ye who pass by me, listen to my prayer: Harm me not.”
-Adapted by Elise Krohn from “Prayer of the Woods,” a Portuguese forest preservation prayer that has been used for more than 1,000 years. Author unknown
Arno, Stephen and Hammerly, Ramona. Northwest Trees. 2007. Miller, Bruce. Sayuyay a ti tuwaduc, Herbal Medicine of the Twana. 1998. Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, 1998. Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. 1993. Pojar, Jim and Mackinnon, Andy. Plants of the Pacific NW Coast. Lone Pine, 1994. Preston, Richard J. North American Trees. Iowa State University Press, 1980. Randall, Warren R. Manual of Oregon Trees and Shrubs. John Bell; 1998. Seller, Adam. Clinical Strategies and Herbal Therapeutics Class, 2003.