Your first exposure to cedar was probably your parents or grandparents slipping thin slabs of this fragrant, reddish wood into boxes of winter clothing to keep the moths away. Or maybe you’ve purchased cedar wood clothes hangers for the same effect. (Most early American homes had a cedar chest specifically for shielding precious clothing and books from the ravages of moths and silverfish.) But there’s a lot more to cedar than repelling insects.
In the early 1500s, Jacques Cartier was following in the footsteps of previous ill-fated explorers in the pursuit of a Northwest Passage through the Americas that would allow France to trade with China. Cartier and his crew found themselves stuck in deep ice at the mouth of Canada’s St. Charles River, where they fell ill to scurvy, the deadly sailor’s disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. According to a crew member’s diary, as Cartier was walking on the ice that held their ship fast, he ran into Domagaia, a native, whose cure was to “take the barke and leaves of the sayd tree, and boile them together, then to drinke of the sayd decoction every other day, and to put the dregs of it upon his legs that is sicke.” Cartier’s crew purportedly consumed an entire cedar tree in this manner, recovering with the help of the vitamin C in the cedar’s sap.
Cedar in the New World
In the boggy conditions of much of colonial North America, northern white cedars grow in thick stands. Native Americans of the Ojibwe tribes called it Grandmother Cedar in recognition of its usefulness, and it was one of the four plants of their medicine wheel. Noticing the rich smell and white-cedar’s combination of flexibility and strength, European settlers named these trees after the cedars of Lebanon, either because they mistook them for the same species or because they meant to commemorate the biblical forests of Solomon’s era.
But what Americans and Canadians call cedar is actually a completely different group of trees. Though the wood shares a similar fragrance and other characteristics, North American cedars are from the cypress family. Scale-leaved, not needle-leaved like their Mediterranean counterparts, they look more like a traditional pine tree, conical with tiny scale-like leaves that lay tight on their branches, so each branch looks like a series of fingers spreading outwards. Their cones are tiny (usually less than half an inch long) and look like the tops of acorns squeezed into clusters.
Other North American “cedars” are actually junipers, including the Desert White Cedar (Juniperus monosperina) and Eastern Red-cedar (Juniperus Virginiana). Red-cedar cones are used to flavor gin, which gets its name from the French for juniper, genièvre. The French also named Louisiana’s Baton Rouge – “Red Stick” – for the red-cedar poles that native Americans used in the area to mark the boundaries of each others’ hunting territories.
Like their forebears in the Middle East, European colonists quickly put cedar to use for fence posts, shingles, siding, tubs, and small boats. According to the famous American botanist Donald Peattie in his 1950 volume A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, cedar “is one of the toughest woods we have; a mere shaving from a carpenter’s plane may be laid on an anvil, folded, and struck repeatedly with a hammer, yet not break.”
(Though it was famously tough, cedar wasn’t important to the colonists solely for building things: charcoal from Atlantic white-cedar was used to make gunpowder during the American Revolution.)
Totem poles, unique to the indigenous nations of the Pacific Northwest, are all made of cedar, and almost all existing totem poles that aren’t specially preserved in museums are under 100 years old.
The world’s widest totem pole is located on the opposite end of Vancouver Island in a small town called Duncan, the “City of Totems.” Carved by Richard Hunt of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribes and erected in 1988, it portrays a grim-faced chief holding an animal totem staff adorned with the swooping blocks of color typical of Pacific Northwest native art. The pole’s name? Cedar Man.
Currently in the United States, cedars that aren’t used for lumber are either decorative or federally protected. Valued for their oblivious hardiness, arbor-vitae are planted next to houses in millions of suburban subdivisions.
Modern-day cedar applications
Cedar’s moisture resistance makes it a favorite for saunas, and herbal sauna treatments in giant cedar barrels are a mainstay in Russian health spas. You’ll also find cedar sold in plank form for grilling, a technique first used by native Americans of the Pacific Northwest on salmon. (Its fragrance lends an excellent smoky flavor to other meats and seafood.)
In the States, cedar’s been used for pencils, shingles, decks, small boats, furniture, closet linings, telephone poles and fence posts. Cedarwood oil is used in a variety of toiletries, cleansers, hair products, furniture polish, insecticides and deodorants. It was also registered as a pesticide in the US in 1960, and two products on the market use it to repel fleas from household pets.
There’s some debate as to its effectiveness on bedbugs but the final word seems to be that cedarwood oil won’t stop these critters. The Federal Trade Commission is taking legal action against several companies for making false claims about cedar oil killing bedbugs and head lice. Cedarcide, whose products and canned testimonials blanket the Web, was sued by the FTC in September of 2012 for deceptive practices and false bed bug claims.
Like the explorer Cartier, who claimed that “all the drugges of Alexandria…woulde not have done so muche in one yeare, as that tree dydde in five days,” the alternative medicine set claims cedar’s essential oils can conquer everything from flagging blood pressure to dandruff. But the American Cancer Society cautions – cedar oil, though sweet-smelling, widely used in aromatherapy and valued for its positive properties, has in some cases proven toxic.
Leading image by Vivian Benson.