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Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest once believed that sleeping beneath a Western Red Cedar would evoke vivid dreams. During their purifying rituals, people of the First Nations drank infusions made from red cedar boughs. Having trekked through fragrant groves of these noble conifers – and having spent a few nights sharing transpired air with them –  I’d have to say those early Americans were on to something.

Red cedars (Thuja plicata) played an important role in the natives’ material world, too. Cedar timber and bark were used to construct housing, and they were crafted into totem poles, masks, water vessels, canoes, instruments, utensils, and ceremonial items. The roots and bark of red cedars were woven into cordage, baskets, textiles, and even jewelry.

In addition (since familiarity with the natural world was deeper then, and nothing was ever wasted), the essences of red cedar were inculcated in native healers’ medicinal lore.  

Natives knew that mature, fallen cedars could rest upon the forest floor for generations without rotting, a property they attributed to the spiritual nature of the tree. Modern science holds that this durability stems from a trienolone called thujaplicin, an antifungal that is unequalled in the natural world (it also happens to be a potent antibacterial and antioxidant). Red cedars are also rich in flavonols, procyanidins, quercitin, kaempferol, volatile oils, and catechins (the same stuff that gives green tea its good name).  

Native healers used red cedar for treating fevers, sore throats, coughs, colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculous infections, diarrhea, boils, heart and kidney problems, menstrual disorders, ringworm and other fungal skin infections, toothaches, arthritis, sore muscles, vaginitis, and bladder irritation. Eclectic physicians and herbalists in America and Europe have exploited Western Red and Northern White Cedar for many of the same maladies, as well as prostate problems, incontinence, and syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Modern research confirms the antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, and antioxidant activities of thujaplicin, as well as the immune-stimulating effects of various red cedar extracts. Red cedar enhances phagocytic activity in human granulocytes (a special class of white blood cells), which is important for fighting off bacterial and fungal infections.

Like all good medications, red cedar has side effects. Because it stimulates uterine contractions, pregnant women should not use red cedar externally, internally, or in aromatherapy. Red cedar can be highly immunogenic, and allergies to the tree’s oils, extracts, tinctures, salves, infusions, and decoctions are fairly common. Skin irritation caused by red cedar oil can be reminiscent of poison ivy dermatitis (loggers are quite familiar with this particular aspect of “cedar poisoning”). Apply the oil to a very small area and observe for a couple of days to determine how you’ll respond to it, and never slather red cedar oil over broad areas of your pelt.

The Western Red Cedar is one of my favorite evergreen trees. Its longevity, durability, visual appeal, and aroma make it valuable in industry, in the rural landscape, and in the forest canopy. Its diverse healing properties are on a par with some of the most respected medicinal plants.

And, on a warm summer evening, spreading your bedroll beneath the arched branches of a cedar could transport you to a world you haven’t visited for a long, long time.