The Forest Pharmacy
(Article from The Laker)
The Northern White Cedar growing in an open field takes on a pyramidal shape, even if it is a cluster of smaller trees forming what looks like one large tree. A significant shape for a unique and special tree! Not even a true Cedar, it is actually an Arbor-Vitae, a "tree of life". It gives us a lesson in how good strong gifts and medicines can come in small packages, for while this tree has many good uses, it needs to be taken in small doses or it can be very dangerous.
The Chippewa and other Native Peoples regard this as a sacred tree. The evergreen leaves are scale-like and flat, perhaps a cross between a (deciduous?) leaf, a needle and (the skin of?) a reptile. They are often used as a smudge to purify sacred objects and people in (Native?) ceremonies, especially in a sweat lodge. A plate of hot coals is used and dried Cedar leaves are placed upon it. This smudge was also used to revive unconscious patients, in an exorcism ritual, and as a refreshing incense.
A tea of the leaves is considered one of the best remedies for arthritic and muscular pain. CAUTION is necessary in the use of this excellent tea when taken internally however. More than one cup per day may cause bloating and flatulence. It also CAN CAUSE ABORTION during pregnancy due to a reflex action on the uterus from sever gastrointestinal irritation.
With that caution in mind, let's look at the positive things it can do in small doses.
"A quart of Arbor-Vitae to make him strong and might" was a line in an old song of the loggers and lumbermen of the North woods during the last century. They thought that anyone who drank this aromatic tea regularly would always be free of rheumatism. I would hesitate to drink a quart a day, though or even half a quart, but then I'm not a century old logger.
Other helpful uses of the leaf/twig tea were as a cold and cough remedy; to cool a fever (and intermittent fevers); to ease a headache; to cure scurvy; to drive out intestinal worms; to increase the flow of urine, and thus relieve gout; to stimulate the heart; to purify the blood; to bring on a cleansing sweat, especially in a sweat lodge or sauna; and to improve the flavour of other herbal teas.
A neighbour tells me his father used to chew a bit of cedar leaf as a breath freshener before entering church!
Women might drink tea to bring on the menses, as a uterine stimulant, as an afterbirth tea, and/or to stimulate the flow of milk. Mean and women might find regular use would suppress the sexual appetite, which could be a benefit if you're a logger off in the North Woods for a winter (or you husband is).
Externally a leaf/twig tea poultice, or a salve made by simmering leaves and twigs in lard or vegetable oil, has had many uses. They can be applied, daily for 3 or 4 weeks, for relief of arthritis; to remove warts, including the venereal variety ("condylamata"); to wipe out fungal growths; to reduce swelling in bodily limbs; to restore movement in cases of paralysis; for skin problems, fistulae, bleeding moles (due to its astringency), soft chancres, fissures, urethral carbuncles, and various other indolent lesions.
Though not as aromatic as Eastern Red Cedar or Western red Cedar, the leaves and twigs of white Cedar have been used as moth repellent, often in a cloth sachet, and even tied on the lower legs as a snake repellent. The wood is also used in making clothing chests with the intent of repelling moths.
An oil containing a large quantity (56.7%) of "thujone" (?) is still commonly distilled from cedar leaves and twigs. Applied externally it helps remove warts and fungal growths, repel insects, kill skin parasites, ease rheumatism and skin afflictions, and as an irritant (?). Taken in VERY SMALL DOSES WITH EXTREME CAUTION, Cedar oil is used (internally?) as an emmenagogue (to bring on menstruation?), a heart stimulant, a uterine stimulant, and a vermifuge, but AN OVERDOSE CAN BE FATAL. A Cedar leaf tincture can be used externally to eliminate venereal warts, and can be taken in small doses as a vermicide.
The caution about Cedar (and its relatives) includes the inhalation of its wood dust while working with the wood.
Besides its above mentioned use in Cedar chests, the wood is used for its light weight, durability and decay resistance for fence posts, canoe and boat building, and shingles. I have found that clear, quarter sawn boards make fine sound boards for some musical instruments. The outer bark and dry wood make excellent tinder and kindling for fires. The fibrous outer bark used to be used in bag and mat making.
The first North American tree to be transplanted to Europe, the Cedar is still loved by our native deer, moose and hares (for the leaves); rabbits (for the leaves and young bark); and red squirrels and song birds (for the seeds).