Majestic longhouses, swift and rot-resistant canoes, durable clothing, watertight baskets, cordage, tools, art, medicine and many other things have been, are fashioned from cedar.
By Elise Krohn
Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata has has been at the center of the rich culture of Salish People and has always provided for them from birth to death. It has been called Grandmother, Long Life Maker and Rich Woman Maker.
Identifying Cedar: Cedar is a distinctive tall evergreen tree with 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 with upward pointed tips. Simple round flowers bloom in late summer and give the tree a yellowish appearance. They can rain a cloud of pollen
in the spring that makes the air appear hazy, covering everything in fine golden dust.
Cedar seed cones have 8-12 scales, are about 1⁄2 inch long, and are shaped like rosebuds. They are ingeniously engineered to funnel pollen grains into the small spaces between the scales, like
The largest cedar trees are up to 19 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall, which is three fifths as long as a football field! Some of the oldest trees are thought to be as much as 1,000 years old.
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.”
“Prayer of the Woods,” a Portuguese forest preservation prayer that has been used for more than 1,000 years.
-Author unknown, adapted by Elise Krohn
Where it Grows: Cedar thrives in moist soils in lowlands, 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, as well as the foothills on the west side of the Rockies in Montana and Idaho.
Season: Cedar bark is stripped in the late spring and early summer when the sap is running. Wood can be harvested any time of year. Leaves are harvested any time as well, but they are most aromatic in summer.
Harvesting and Processing Cedar: All parts of cedar are highly valued, including the wood, bark, roots, branches and leaves. Harvesting cedar bark takes a lot of expertise. You must understand when, where, and which trees to harvest from, along with how to cut and pull the bark, separate the inner bark from the outer bark, and dry it. It helps to have an elder or culture keeper take you out and show you several times! Bark is peeled from trees with straight trunks by making a single cut and pulling upward on the trunk. Strips can be as long as 30 feet, and are carefully separated into layers.
To harvest cedar leaves, carefully prune small fan-like branches here and there on the tree so you 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 and then hanging them, or placing them on baskets in a dry place with good ventilation. Keep them whole to retain the volatile oils, and then crush them just before you use them. Store in a paper bag or glass jar.
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 in and on themselves to ward off external forces.
Cedar leaves have long been a popular internal and external medicine for painful joints among Coastal Native Peoples. They have also been infused for cough medicine, tuberculosis and fevers. The leaves make wonderful incense and are used in smudging for purification.
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 promotes immune function through helping white blood cells to work better. By stimulating our immune cells to fight infection, clean up debris and denature cancer cells, we are keeping our tissues healthy. Doing several cedar steams a day can help to clear respiratory infections. You can also drink cedar tea by steeping a tablespoon of fresh or dried chopped cedar leaf per cup of water. Many herbalists prefer to steep cedar in cold water and let it sit for several hours or overnight. You only need to drink 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup twice a day to get a medicinal effect.
NOTE: Vital Ways does not recommend or practice the harvest or use of the bark of the Western Red Cedar out of respect for the First Nations People whose sacred cultural medicine this is.
Caution: Cedar contains strong volatile oils including thujone, a ketone that is known to be toxic in large quantities. Cedar should be used internally 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 Facial Steam
You can use dried herbs or essential oil and will need a
medium sized bowl and a towel. Place one handful of herbs
like cedar leaf, fir needle, pine needle, eucalyptus leaf,
rosemary, peppermint or lavender in the bowl. Cedar is a good
medicine for coughs and colds because it helps to fight
infection, increases circulation in the lungs and stimulates your
immune system. Add one to two drops of essential oil if
desired. Pour boiled water over the herbs until the bowl is about half full. Put your face over the
steaming herbs 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. For severe coughs or sinus
congestion, do several steams a day.
Western Red Cedar
Arno, S, and Hammerly, R. (2007) Northwest Trees. Mountaineers Books.
Krohn, E. (2006). Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar. Chatwin Books.
Miller, B. (1998) Sayuyay a ti tuwaduc, Herbal Medicine of the Twana.
Moore, M. (1993). Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Museum of New Mexico Press.
Pojar, J. and Mackinnon, A. (1994). Plants of the Pacific NW Coast. Lone Pine.
Preston, Richard J. (1980) North American Trees. Iowa State University Press.
Stewart, H. (1995) Cedar: Tree of Life to the Northwest Coastal Indians. University of Washington Press
To learn much more about this amazing plant medicine, please join a class, or subscribe to Vital Ways Newsletter.We invite you to join our community of health luminaries and visionaries at Vital Ways.