medicinal uses of cedar

The Cedar Path – Cedar as Medicine in Iowa

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A bit of Eastern Red Cedar branch and berry ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Properties: Anti-inflammatory, Diaphoretic, Expectorant, Astringent, Anti-microbial, Diuretic, Anti-asthmatic, Anti-fungal

Energetics: Warm, Very dry, astringent 

Parts used: Berries (female cones), branches, leaves, bark

Before I even knew what Cedars were, I loved their smell.  Nowadays, the scent of Cedar wood evokes memories of cabin stays with cousins far up in the mountains of Utah as a child, thinking that the house just smelled that good because it was a magical place, a magical time.  I remember being irrationally excited to go on those cabin retreats, not knowing why.

In my more recent years, and falling into the world of herbalism, I once brushed up against a support beam of Cedar wood in a sustainable dwelling, and it was as if the scent hit me like a lightning bolt– what was that?  Why do I feel this way?  I asked what kind of wood it was, and they told me it was Cedar.  Since then I have been almost magnetized to the scent of this tree.  It immediately calms me down, transports me to another place, and makes me leave all current worries.  I tend to go straight back to that cabin up in the mountains: covered in Pendleton blankets, sipping hot cocoa, and watching the desert with reverence.

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Cedar tree in Iowa ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

No coincidence that Cedar has an important place in many cultures as a strong spiritual agent with a cleansing presence,  a protective plant in rituals and as medicine.   It is commonly ascribed similar properties as Sage; the needles, bark, or sap is burnt as an incense, the smoke it emits protecting and cleansing against spiritual “residue.”  Cedar can be “smudged” like sage, to purify a space, home, or person.  For me, I came to realize that this wonderful, satisfying smell may be a direct reflection of these effects, as it seems to immediately calm and sedate, smoothing over stress and uncertainty, dispelling fear and doubt.  These same effects are no doubt what drew it to be favored by Native cultures throughout the United States, and other cultures the world over that were blessed to be in the presence of this beautiful tree.

In Iowa, the Cedar we are happy to have with us is the Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana.  By all accounts it really is more of a Juniper than a Cedar, though Cedars and Junipers are actually related.  In fact, the family of plants in which the Eastern Red Cedar belongs extends to the giant Sequoia, the towering Redwood, a variety of other Cedars and Cypresses all over the world, and even the Common Juniper, Juniperus communis.  All these trees are also somewhat interchangeable when it comes to their medicinal and spiritual properties, as well.  Its use as a spiritual agent, interestingly enough, is found in different cultures, on completely different continents.

Eastern Red Cedar Berries ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

The uses of Eastern Red Cedar branch out into many.  They are very similar to the Old World, standard Common Juniper in that its female cones- or berries- are one of its favored usable parts, if not an attribute of the plant that really grabs the eye.  When you see the Cedar’s fragrant branches heavily-laden with these bright blue little “fruits,” it’s hard for an herbalist to think that these are NOT somehow useful!  One of the virtues of the berry is that it goes impeccably well with several mediums: salve, tincture, elixir, syrup, you name it.  What more: it tastes delicious, and mixes well with a large variety of other herbal flavors in combination, if you are crafting a blend or formula of sorts.  The twigs, leaves, branches and bark of Cedar have effects and flavor too, although they are notably more intense and astringent, having a reputation of being hard to extract; their use is important, but not as eclectic.  I would wager that the berries are more for tonic use, whereas the rest of this beautiful plant should be saved for acute situations, which I will get to later.  Berries can be picked during the fall or winter, as they last, when they “ripen” to an appetizing-looking blue.

Remember: Cedar trees tend to be dioecious (at least the Eastern Reds are).  That is, there are males and females of the species.  If it is fall or winter, and the trees you are looking at for harvesting don’t seem to have blue cones, chances are they are male.  Keep looking– you will more than likely stumble upon a female tree not far off.

In its many mediums, the berries serve as a very ideal winter medicine– all the better since they can, for the most part, be harvested all winter as the berries are available.  They are high in Ascorbic Acid, or Vitamin C, an ideal vitamin to take over the winter for immune support.  Even if you don’t have a cold, their use as a tonic will be more than welcome.  When winter illnesses take a nasty turn, Eastern Red Cedar berries work with expectorant action, helping the lungs clear out excess mucus and promote a healthy cough.  It can be useful for a dry or wet cough: it relieves that “tickle” you may feel with a scratchy, dry throat with a hoarse cough, but it also stimulates the lungs to cough more productively, and expel phlegm in less time than without it.  So here you have a medicine that stimulates the immune system, relieves a scratchy throat, improves your cough– and tastes great!  Cedar berries in syrup form are especially delightful.  Sounds like quite a valuable ally to have, if you ask me.  Wonderfully enough the Eastern Red Cedar and its scores of blue cones are certainly not in short supply, as this tree is a prolific grower all over the Midwest.

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Eastern Red Cedar branches ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

In the Native-Hispanic tradition, Cedars and their relatives are valued highly for the properties of their leaves, “needles,” or branches.  These hold the more potent effects of the tree, and as such, are more difficult to capture in preparations.  They can be slightly toxic.  While certainly not widely considered poisonous or dangerous, it is still good to be careful.  Be sparing when using preparations of Cedar needles or branches, even the berries, for that matter.  Cedars are very powerful diuretics.  When taken overboard, they cause kidney irritation, which feels like cramping in the abdomen– similar to a period cramp.  Even higher doses can be more dangerous.  Folks with weak kidneys, or outstanding kidney issues should avoid using the Cedar leaf.

Cedar leaves and branches are particularly a stimulating expectorant, to use when the lungs are incredibly damp, breathing is hard, and illness is acute.  Asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia are prime cases.  When taken in a hot tea, it opens up the pores and eliminates sickness very effectively when the body breaks into a sweat.  For the same reasons, Cedar’s diaphoresis is integrated into sweat rituals, as a means of bodily purification.  Its best documented historical use is among the Lakotas, when foreigner-brought cholera struck their populations.  A very notable medicine man, who later went on to become the notorious chief Red Cloud, turned to the Eastern Red Cedar and found that a hot decoction of its branches was the best cure for the plague– and saved many lives.  This herb is to be used when damp clogs the body, especially in the lungs, and must be eliminated through cough or sweat.  When taken cold, its action moves downward as a diuretic, purging that way through the kidneys– its effects in that regard are very intense, and again, this is not a remedy to be overdone.

Historically in Iowa, the use of Eastern Red Cedar was brought here by the Mesquakie people, hailing originally from Michigan but relocated to Oklahoma, before settling on their land in Iowa.  For them, the plant was a favored tonic, bringing back the weak and ill from the brink or for the invalid or convalescing.  Medicine men used the inner bark for catarrh, grinding it into a powder and inhaling it into the lungs or nasal passages.

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Cedar bark, harvested by white-tailed deer, retrieved by me ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

The bark or wood is also what has been employed for Cedar’s more spiritual purposes.  The leaves and branches have been used for the same, too.  The fragrant, calming smoke when the wood burns is believed to allay nightmares, night terrors, hauntings, malevolent influences/thought forms, evil spirits, and ill-meaning wild animals.  Many native peoples in North America use the smoke to cleanse a home; in the Native-Hispanic traditions, home-cleansings are called “limpias,” and Cedar wood being favored in this way.  Again, the smoke of Cedar is used to purify the body, not just the home.

Deer love the bark, too.  On my winter walks, the trunks of the Eastern Red Cedar display hanging ribbons of tender inner bark that has obviously been stripped back by the teeth of a white-tailed deer.  I favor harvesting this bark, since it is “collateral damage”– it is also the perfect, fibrous texture and consistency for burning as an incense.

I always find it interesting and thought-provoking when the spiritual and emotional effects of plants reflect their physical ones.  Just as Cedar seeks to purge our bodies of spiritual impurities, or to protect a home from negative influences, the hard reality is seen at work when Cedar is taken as medicine: whether it is expelling mucus from our lungs as a stimulating expectorant, clearing them of bacterial or viral infection; or opening up our pores in a cleansing fever to clear toxins, as invoked and adopted by sweat ceremonies.  Whether you believe in esoteric herbalism, or not, Cedar does one thing: it cleans us, in mind and body.

Now, when I take that mind-transporting whiff of Cedar smoke, I realize why I felt that way.  This beautiful tree’s magic is powerful.  If you ever need a friend in the midst of illness, or during a hard emotional time, or if you just need to get some bugs out of your system– Cedar is your herb.  If you wish for simpler times, are feeling nostalgic or just want to reminisce, no plant can summon that feeling better; taking you far up into a cabin in the mountains, surrounded by pines and firs, and blankets.  Enjoy it in a tea, your favorite elixir, a tasty syrup or perhaps in a calming incense blend.  I remember such effects when I’m winding in between the rust-colored  Eastern Red Cedars, peppered across Iowa’s tawny grasslands in winter, harvesting their little blue cones.  Each time I bring in a jar or two, I spread some of the berries in places where Cedars don’t grow– to make sure there are more trees there for us to enjoy in the future.  It’s my way of saying: “Thank you.”

As always: harvest responsibly, and respectfully.

References: Charles Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.  Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher.  Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke.  Personal Experience and Observation.

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Photo taken by Adrian White