Western Red Cedar
Biological Name: Thuja plicata
Cupressaceae, cypress family
History: 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.
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.
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.
Medicinal uses: collect in summer/fall from young trees—highest oil content, antifungal, antibacterial—stimulates phagocytosis, helps athlete’s foot, ringworm, jock itch, nail fungus, chronic vaginitis, stimulates smooth muscle—helps with respiratory, urinary tract, and reproductive system problems, can make tea, tincture, cold infusion, steam
Internal uses include: boiling limbs to make a tuberculosis treatment, chewing leaf buds for sore lungs, boiling leaves to make a cough remedy, making a decoction of leaves to treat colds, chewing leaf buds to relieve toothache pain, making an infusion to treat stomach pain and diarrhea, chewing the inner bark of a small tree to bring about delayed menstruation, making a bark infusion to treat kidney complaints, making an infusion of the seeds to treat fever using a weak infusion internally to treat rheumatism and arthritis
External uses include: making a decoction of leaves to treat rheumatism, washing with an infusion of twigs to treat venereal disease, including the human papilloma virus and other sexually transmitted diseases, making a poultice of boughs or oil to treat rheumatism, making a poultice of boughs or oil to threat bronchitis, making a poultice or oil from inner bark to treat skin diseases, including topical fungal infections and warts, using shredded bark to cauterize and bind wounds. Extracts of red cedar have been shown to have antibacterial properties against common bacteria. Compounds with antifungal properties have also been isolated.
Preparations: Most preparations of red cedar call for boiling the medicinal parts to make a decoction or for making a tea or infusion. Little information exists on dosages. An essential oil can be prepared from red cedar. This oil is meant to be used topically. It is toxic if taken internally, and has the ability to produce convulsions or even death if taken in even small quantities. A 1999 study done in Switzerland noted an increase in poisoning deaths from plant products, including Thuja, due possibly to an increase in people practicing herbal healing and aromatherapy.
Precautions: As noted above, the oil of all species of thuja can cause convulsions. Decoctions of the bark of red cedar can also cause miscarriage. Therefore, pregnant women should not use red cedar.
Side Effects: 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.
Interactions: There are no studies and little observational evidence to indicate whether red cedar interacts with other herbs or with Western pharmaceuticals.