I have so grown to love walking in the forests of Northern Idaho. We moved here quite recently, and I am in awe of all of the species of plants here to forage. One of these is the Western Red Cedar, also called the giant cedar tree, which can grow to well over 200 feet tall! Find out how to identify this majestic tree and also its benefits and uses.
These lovely deep green trees give off a fragrance that is just simply inspiring, I’d have to say. In fact, Native peoples used it in many ceremonies, including dream ceremonies, and I can see why.
Foraging has become one of my favorite things to do in the past few years, since I started learning about how to use herbs medicinally. I was thrilled to learn the uses and benefits of the western red cedar, and how to identify it, which I will share here with you.
Let’s find out more about how to identify this beautiful tree, its benefits, and how to use this herb in your home.
FTC Disclosure: There are affiliate links scattered throughout this article. If you click through and make any kind of purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
NOTE: You may also enjoy How to Make a Red Cedar & White Fir Natural Deodorant, and How to Make a Red Cedar Hydrosol Right in Your Kitchen. (YouTube video)
Foraging Western Red Cedar, and Its Benefits & Uses
When you decide to start foraging for your own plants, you’ll need to first be able to positively identify them. There are a lot of look-a-likes out there, and it’s easy to make some mistakes. With the red cedar, however, there are some outstanding characteristics that make this tree easy to identify.
Here are some quick facts about the Western Red Cedar
In Latin, this tree is often called Arbor-vitae, which means “tree of life.” It’s Latin name, “plicata,” stems from the Greek word meaning “plaits.” This refers to the overlapping structure of the leaves.
A felled tree’s wood can last over 100 years due to its amazing ability to fight off decay. It has a very long decomposition process. It’s wood is beloved for using in building.
The native peoples used (and according to a modern day indigenous person, still do use) all parts of the Western Red Cedar. They build structures, make ropes from the bark, boxes, arrow shafts, masks, and more from the tree parts. Native Americans in the areas where this tree grew used the wood for creating dug out canoes as well (and perhaps they still do: I know that here in our small Idaho town it’s a hobby for some).
Natives also use it medicinally and in their spirit ceremonies as well.
How to Identify Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
It’s important to note that western red cedar is not actually a true cedar. True cedars come from the genus Cedrus. This giant tree is called Thuja plicata, and is a member of the cypress family. It is common in the Pacific Northwest, as it enjoys moist, wet areas ranging from the coast of Western North America and into the interior where there is still significant moisture.
General Appearance of the Western Red Cedar:
It is a very tall tree, and can grow over 200 feet tall! It towers over other trees, and often grows alongside other tall pines. It has lovely drooping branches, and the trunk spreads rather widely toward the base. It’s often called the Green Giant or the Giant Cedar.
The Leaves of the Western Red Cedar:
The leaves grow in an overlapping shingle like fashion, and grow in opposite pairs in four rows. They grow on twigs that form a fan-like pattern. In fact, when you cut one of the twigs off, it’s easy to imagine them actually being used as a large fan.
The cones are rather small, being only about one centimeter or so in diameter. They have a reddish brown color and several pairs of scales.
The bark is a greyish color and rather stringy looking. It is relatively easy to pull off.
The Western Red Cedar likes moist, cool environments. You’ll find it towering above Douglas fir, spruce, other pines. You’ll often find huckleberries, mosses, and ferns in the area where this tree grows best.
It doesn’t mind shade, either. You may find it growing in the shadow of a mountain just fine. It lives a very long time, and some scientists have found specimens over 1,000 years old!
Get the Newsletter and Never Miss a Thing!
Medicinal and Other Uses for the Western Red Cedar
The Western Red Cedar contains a extremely strong compound called trienolone, which is one of the reasons the wood takes so very long to decompose on the forest floor.
While most trees decompose with a few years, this giant tree may take over 100 years to rot and return to the soil. It’s also quite a potent anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-oxidant.
Red cedars are filled with flavonols, quercitin, procyanidins, kaempferol, catechins, and volatile oils.
Here are some of the ways Native healers used the red cedar: urinary tract issues, fevers, skin infections, ringworm or other fungal infections, prostate problems, coughs, colds, bronchitis, and sore muscles among other things.
Research has been done on the red cedar, and studies have confirmed the antibacterial, antifungal, anti-oxidant, and immune-stimulating properties of the compounds within the tree’s parts.
Contraindications and Safety Factors: The compounds in the red cedar can cause uterine contractions in women if enough is taken internally. Therefore, pregnant women should avoid drinking the tea.
Also, some people are sensitive to the oils in the plant and may have an allergic reaction. Loggers often call this “cedar poisoning,” and it may present as a dermatitis or rash on the skin.
Ways to Use Red Cedar Medicinally
Western red cedar is not used much in these modern times. It mainly was used medicinally by Native Americans in the same habitat.
However, knowing the properties of the tree, if there were ever an emergency or disaster situation, I wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of the aromatic and medicinal properties of this lovely forest giant.
1) In a salve
—-It’s easy to infuse the aromatic leaves in oil. Then you can use this infused oil to create a wonderful smelling salve for skin issues.
2) In a tea
To make a tea, use the leaves. The tips are best. Gather 1/2 cup of the leaves, and pour boiling water over the top (about three cups). Cover the jar and allow to steep for 15 minutes for drinking.
Be sure not to drink the tea every single day. It should be used minimally for bronchial illnesses and helping with breathing. It can be used for pleasure, but care should be taken. See the safety factors above.
3) In a liniment:
If you want to use the tea externally as a liniment, you would steep it overnight. You can use this liniment three or four times a day to help with fungal issues like ringworm or athlete’s foot.
4) Tinctured in alcohol:
If you want this preparation ready to go, a tincture is perfect. You would use a much smaller amount (a normal adult dose is about 1/2 teaspoon).
You can also use the tincture externally, just as you would a liniment.
Final Thoughts on Foraging and Using Western Red Cedar
I have fallen in love with this tree. In fact, I plan on planting a few of these on our property and will cross my fingers that they will grow well—-perhaps on the shady side of the hill?
Being self-reliance-minded, I’m a firm believer in knowing about the plants that grow naturally around you. You never know: One day you may need them to save your life!
Anyhow, this tree is more than a pretty forest ornament. It has uses beyond what we would expect, and I plan to always have infused oil and tincture on hand. I think I’ll mix it with some pine in an alcohol tincture. Best of both evergreen worlds!
Do you forage for plants in your area? Please share! Also, if you have experiences with the red cedar I didn’t mention, please leave a comment in the comments section!
You may also enjoy these related articles:
Foraging for Chaparral (and How to Make a Chaparral Salve)
Foraging for Juniper
Foraging for Lambsquarters, Nature’s Wild Spinach Substitute
Foraging for Wild Rose Hips (And How to Make Rose Hip Syrup)
and there are a LOT more on the blog! Head on over and browse around!
And…do you need some great foraging books? If you want to forage for wild medicinals and edibles, you should have a few different resources you trust for your area. I love these books for the Western States: Mountain States Foraging, Southwest Foraging, Botany in a Day.
Books by Michael Moore are wonderful too: Medicinal Herbs of the Canyon West, Medicinal Herbs of the Desert & Canyon West, and others. Click through and take a look—-it’s likely foraging books will pop up for your area too!
Want to take an amazing Botany and Wildcrafting Course? You’ll have to check out The Herbal Academy of New England’s online course. It’s an excellent start for your botanical identification skills!
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
P.S. Please sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t done so yet! You’ll never miss a thing, and you’ll get immediate access to the growing Resource Library! A Foraging Checklist is coming soon! But for now, you may enjoy this eBook, How to Relax Using Herbs, as well as all the other guides, checklists, and cheat sheets to help you in your self-reliant journey!
Just complete the form below:
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. In no manner, stated or implied is any content I produce meant to cure, treat, diagnose, or prevent any disease. Please be sure to seek advice from your medical professional before using herbs or essential oils. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.