Thuja occidentalis

Northern or Eastern White Cedar, Arbor Vitae,
Thuja occidentalis

Family: Cupressaceae, the Cypress Family

Description: Native evergreen tree. Scale-like, shiny, overlapping leaves on flat branchlets. Shredding red-brown bark, leathery, erect seed cones. Aromatic.

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Wet slopes, woods, some rocky slopes

Plant Parts Used: Leaves, pitch, wood

Medicine: Colds, flu, upset stomachs, sore throats, vitamin C, skin problems, cleansing

Other: Building, ceremony

Most people recognize cedar as being an ingredient in household cleaning products or being sold to put in closets to repel sweater-eating moths. However, cedar also possesses strong medicine for a multitude of common ailments. Native Americans have known about the power of cedar, also called arbor vitae, for centuries. Arthur told a story about Jacques Cartier arriving in the region that is now called Quebec with a crew ridden with scurvy. The local natives treated these men with cedar, now known for its high concentration of vitamin C, and they were cured. According to a 1943 article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, per 100 grams of fresh needles, “white cedar” contains 167 mg of vitamin C.

Ray told me that cedar leaves can be used for tea, but more as a medicinal tea than a casual tea because it is so strong tasting. As a casual tea, cedar should not be steeped for long or it is overpowering. This tea is good for colds, flu, and turning stomachs. Sue also said that a tea or chew of the leaves can fend off colds, flu, and sore throats. The pitch can be combined with oil, such as olive oil, for making salves which can treat persistent sores and skin cancer. The Iroquois and Algonquin used the branches in a steam bath for treating cold symptoms. The Malecite treated coughs with an infusion of the branches. The Mi’kmaq, however, treated coughs using the bark.

Deb keeps white cedar boughs in a pot of water on the woodstove in the winter if colds are going around, as this will not turn to turpentine like balsam fir might. Deb also uses dried cedar in July and August for making a cleansing steam or to make a large infusion to add to a bath, which helps clear negativity and cold symptoms. Four ounces of tea taken two times a day helps treat colds residing in the lungs or cold, damp congestion. Five to ten drops of the tincture will have the same effect. She gathers cedar to dry in July and August. Dried cedar can be used in a cleansing steam or added to a bath anytime throughout the year, as needed. Deb warns that pregnant or nursing women should avoid taking this plant due to its strength.

Besides medicine, Ray also praised cedar’s use for assisting with the initial sweat during ceremonial sweats and saunas. The Chippewa burned cedar as a ceremonial incense and the Micmac used this incense for purification before and during ceremonies. The wood is also used for building canoes and paddles.

Caution: Cedar is not recommended for use during pregnancy.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.


  • Haines, Arthur. “Preserving Native Plant Knowledge.” Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, Mt. Desert, Maine. 9 Oct. 2010. Lecture.
  • Hunter, G., and J. Tuba. “Notes on Rose Hips and Evergreens as Sources of Vitamin C.” Canadian Medical Association Journal1 (1943): 30-32. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.
  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
  • Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
  • Soule, Deb. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2011.
  • Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.
  • Turner, Nancy J., and Patrick Von Aderkas. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.