Apothecary is a series focusing on natural remedies produced or grown wild in local habitats. Influences come from family and Indigenous practices centered on improving physical, mental health, and well being.
Behind our family property at Rice Lake, Southern Ontario, lies a magical coniferous forest with trails to walk or cross country ski. And growing along the path is the aromatic Canadian cedar tree, majestic and teaming with life. Over the last season, my Mom and I have come to learn, the cedar we pass every day on our woods walks possesses health benefits and is ‘steeped’ in the local traditions of our Indigenous neighbors.
How to correctly identify Canadian Cedar Trees
Cedar, in Canada, refers to evergreen conifers (genus Thuja) of the cypress family (Cupressaceae). They are also called arbor vitae [Latin, “tree of life”]. Arborvitae is any of the five species of the genus Thuja, resinous, evergreen ornamental, and timber conifers of the cypress family, native to North America and eastern Asia. The tree under discussion is therefore botanically classified as a cypress, but commonly referred to (mistakenly) as a White Cedar. This article therefore ONLY refers to Thuja occidentalis
Traditionally the genus Cupressus is used medicinally in rheumatism, whooping cough, and styptic problem (Kuiate et al., 2006). It eliminates fluid retention and is used to promote venous circulation to the kidney and bladder area, to improve bladder tone (Thukral et al., 2014).
True cedars belong to the coniferous genus Cedrus (pine family) and are found from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas. Six species of Thuja are recognized: 2 in North America; 4 in eastern Asia. Western red cedar (T. plicata), found along the BC coast and western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, may attain 60 m in height, and 3 m in diameter. Eastern white cedar (T. occidentalis), growing to 25 m, occurs in the Great Lakes-St Lawrence forest region. The Asiatic species, T. orientalis, is often planted as an ornamental.
The Indigenous History of Canadian Cedar
In the book The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, authors Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley discuss the historical context of cedar from an Indigenous point of view:
Cedar is a sacred tree and, like sweetgrass and tobacco, is part of many ceremonies. It’s used to purify homes, in sweat-lodge ceremonies, and as a medicine.
Our home is close to the Indigenous reservation of the Ojibwa people. Cedar plays a central role in history, and current-day lives with the Ojibwa way of life and holds provenance within the cultures of other North American tribes.
According to the KBIC Health System, Cedar is considered one of the four sacred medicines with many practical uses in Indigenous life:
Like sage and sweetgrass, cedar is used to purify the home. It also has many therapeutic medicinal purposes. Cedar baths are healing. When cedar is put in the fire with tobacco, it crackles. When it does this, it is calling the attention of the spirits to the offering that is being made. Cedar is used in fasting and sweat lodge ceremonies as a form of protection: cedar branches cover the floor of the sweat lodge, and a circle of cedar surrounds the faster’s lodge.
What Traditional Health Benefits are ascribed to Canadian Cedar
Joseph Pitawanakwat, a resident of the Wikwemikong First Nation, teaches about hundreds of medicinal plants in 200 Indigenous communities and institutions. On his YouTube Channel, Creators Garden, Joseph recently spoke of the many health benefits traditionally ascribed to cedar:
- The tree holds a significant purpose in detoxification, stimulating the lymphatic system.
- It plays a vital role in fat absorption and transportation and therefore utilization. Great as an accompaniment for ketogenesis, and keto diets, fasting protocol, and cardiovascular exercise.
- The tea can lower chronic low-grade inflammation, the aging process’s primary drivers, and nearly every chronic disease.
Continuing with Indigenous traditions, Kim Wheatley, an Anishinaabe Ojibway Grandmother from the Shawanaga First Nation Reserve, prepares a hot cup of giishik or cedar Tea and shares the different benefits in the following Everyday Wellness video.
Other commonly ascribed health benefits include:
- An aid for respiratory conditions and clear phlegm and other breathing difficulties accompany colds and flu.
- The prevention of scurvy.
- Considered a natural diuretic and includes the active compounds cedrol, beta-cedrene, and thujopene.
Does Modern Science support these claims?
To address this, let’s examine the major components of T. occidentalis Essential Oil (EO), namely monoterpenoid ketones α‐thujone (69.8%), β‐thujone (9.5%), and fenchone (7.8%). The monoterpenoid alcohols terpinene‐4‐ol and p‐cymene‐8‐ol, and the diterpenoid beyerene are only present in low amounts (<3.0%).
We can address fenchone first. It has recognized and clinically validated medicinal value, promoting the healing of wounds, According to the study, performed on rats, researchers found;
The anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activities of fenchone and limonene oil increased collagen synthesis and decreased the number of inflammatory cells during wound healing and may be useful for treating skin wounds.
Fenchone has proven anti-fungal properties and shown in clinical trials to reduce tumor volume, mass, and total viable cancer cells (in rats). Research showed the following;
EOM (100 or 150 mg/kg) and fenchone (60 mg/kg) reduced all analyzed parameters (tumor volume and mass, and total viable cancer cells). Survival also increased for the treated animals with EOM and fenchone. For EOM 150 mg/kg and 5-FU treatment, most cells were arrested in the G0/G1 phase, whereas for fenchone, cells arrested in the S phase, which represents a blockage in cell cycle progression.
It should be noted that results obtained with
It should be noted in terms of toxicology from the above clinical trial that fenchone induced decrease of AST and ALT, suggesting liver damage in the the test subjects.
Studies are ongoing on the effects of the main active compound. thujone, which is a compound used in absinth and has purported hallucinogenic properties. In veterinary science, the application of a topical cream for horses has been shown to produce anti-carcinogenic effects on cancer tumors and the plant is widely used in the treatment of animals.
There may as yet be additional undiscovered actions, as the White Cedar and its oil has only been assessed for its safe use as an anitmicrobial and as an insect repellant. It is utilized in these two fields because as an airborne agent or topical application, it has a demonstrated safety profile for humans.
Thujone is classified as a terpenoid, a natural toxin produced by many plant species e.g. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), Sage (Salvia officinalis), and more. Its inclusion in food as a flavoring and preservative is heavily regulated in the West and in Europe.
Thujone interacts with the GABA receptors and is thus important in the regulation of stimuli in our neural system. This mechanism is most known for Absinth where thujone is the active compound suspected for causing hallucinations and great inspiration for the artists around 1900 in Europe.
Western Red Cedar needles contain the most Thujone among the plant species known to contain this compound. According to a report published in Springer;
Based primarily on in vitro experiments, genotoxicity and carcinogenic properties of thujones have also been detected in parallel with antimutagenic and immune-modulatory effects. Some of the controversial effects seem to be strongly dose-dependent. Data on antidiabetic and antimicrobial activities of thujones may show new ways to use them.https://doi.org/10.1007/s11101-020-09671-y
There is definite scientific evidence of the impact of the White Cedar’s active compounds on many of the body’s systems traditional healers claim it affects. Further study is required to validate initial findings and to establish safe dosage.
Initially, Shiela cut small sprigs of cedar and placed them inside a tea ball to steep in boiled water. The results were subpar, and the tea was weak in flavor. We have since changed our preparation to mimic the following easy instructions;
- Collect 2 cups of fresh cedar leaves — do not use the bark.
- In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups of fresh filtered water to a boil. Add the cedar leaves to the water and allow to simmer.
- After 10 to 15 minutes, strain the cedar leaves out of the water, which will now be a beautiful gold shade.
Drink and enjoy!
Small doses are best and consider drinking the tea when required. We do not recommend exceeding a cup a day!
After discovering the broad spectrum of reported health benefits from our Indigenous neighbors, our family started 1 cup of cedar tea daily from the fall of 2020 onward.
From the first moment I touched my lips to the mug and drank in the rich aroma of cedar, I fell in love. If you prefer the cedar scent in your washroom and are reminded of the Pine-sol cleaning brand, you may struggle with the taste. And if you find the flavor overpowering, consider sweetening the tea with wild, local honey or maple syrup.
- The Splendid Table, Cedar Tea
- Blissful Vitality, Healing Cedar Tea
- Indigenous Sport & Wellness Ontario, The Benefits of Cedar Tea
- nomiforager.com, The Magic of Cedar
- Sherman, Sean. Dooley, Beth. The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, Ghost Dancer, LLC. University of Minnesota Press. 2017
Credit to my Mom, Sheila Beasley, who continues to teach me the wonders and bounties of our natural world, a life long learner of the incredible health benefits sitting outside our doorstep.