Winter has arrived – the season of darkness and cold. Many people follow the traditions of their ancestors and decorate with fragrant cedar, fir, or spruce. These “ever-green” trees remind us that we can also endure the hardship of winter. We too are resilient and will grow in the light of a new season.
I am especially grateful for Western red cedar during wintertime. It is the most defining tree of our wet woodlands and the most culturally significant to Coast Salish People. Cedar has many names in indigenous languages including Tree of Life, Grandmother, and Long Life Maker. It is associated with teachings about kindness and generosity. Grand longhouses, swift and rot-resistant canoes,durable clothing, ornate baskets, cordage, tools, art, medicine and many other things continue to be fashioned from cedar. While every part of cedar is precious, the leaves are especially useful now for making respiratory steams to help fight coughs and colds. This simple home remedy is easy to make and costs nothing but a walk to a cedar tree and a little time chopping leaves.
Cedar thrives in cool damp forests where molds and fungi thrive. Scratch cedar leaves or cut the wood, and you will smell strong essential oils. Cedar makes these oils to repel molds, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and insects. When we cut cedar leaf, cover it with boiling water, and inhale the steam, we are using cedar’s powerful antimicrobial oils to fight infection in our own tissue.
Cedar promotes our immune function through stimulating white blood cell scavenging. Inhaling cedar steam also stimulates blood flow in our lungs, which enables us to absorb more oxygen into our blood and remove more waste products. Nutrients flow more easily into lung tissue while debris from fighting an infection is carried away. This helps us to heal more quickly.
Cedar (Thuja plicata) is easy to identify once you get to knot it. It is a distinctive tall evergreen tree with a drooping leader, a wide buttressing base, and a fibrous, fluted trunk with gray to cinnamon-red bark. Greenish-yellow leaves are flat with opposite scales. Branches are often J-shaped. Seed cones have 8-12 scales, are about ½ inches long, and are shaped like rosebuds. The largest cedar trees are up to 19 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall. Some of the oldest trees are over 1,000 years old!
You can gather cedar leaves any time of year. Look for fresh boughs that have fallen down from a storm. If they are not available, carefully prune small fan-like branches here and there so you not leave a visible impact.
Leaves can be used fresh, or they can be dried by bundling several small branches with a rubber band then hanging them or placing them on baskets in a dry place with good ventilation. Keep them whole, and then crush them just before you use them to retain the fragrant oils. Store in a paper bag or glass jar for up to a year.
Cedar Respiratory Steam
All you need is a few sprigs of cedar, a bowl, scissors, a towel, and hot water for steaming. Cut the cedar leaf into small pieces until you have about ½ cup in a medium sized bowl (do not use metal since it will get hot). Pour boiled water over the cedar until the bowl is half full. Place your face over the steam at a comfortable distance, and cover your head with a towel. Breath deep! Try to steam for at least 5 minutes. Pour more hot water in if necessary. For chronic coughs or sinus congestion,steaming several times a day may be necessary.
Variations: Other herbs including fir needle, pine needle, eucalyptus leaf, rosemary, peppermint, yarrow, or lavender can also be added. You can add one to two drops of essential oil if desired. Eucalyptus helps to thin mucus, peppermint is anti-inflammatory, rosemary stimulates circulation, and lavender is relaxing and healing to skin. Most essential oils have some antimicrobial action.
Caution: Cedar contains strong volatile oils that are known to be toxic in large quantities. While steaming with cedar leaf is very safe, exercise caution when using the essential oil.
Our Tend, Gather, and Grow Project connects youth and community members with plants, local ecosystems, and the rich cultural traditions that surround them. On December 9th, we offered our first Evergreen Conifer Trees Teacher to seventeen educators from throughout Western Washington. See our events page for upcoming teacher trainings including Tree Communities: Alder, Cedar and Cottonwood on February 9th and Wild Food Traditions: Spring Greens on March 16th. We also offer monthly classes on wild foods and medicines.
Western Red Cedar
I am the heat of your hearth on the cold winter nights, the friendly shade screening you from summer sun, and the dancing bows that capture your imagination.
I am the beam that holds your house, the board of your table, and the roof that shelters you from rain.
I am the handle of your shovel, the bark of your basket, and the hull of your canoe.
I am the medicine that heals you, the incense that carries your prayers, and tea that is used to cleanse your home.
I am the wood of your cradle and the shell of your coffin.
I am the breath of kindness and the bough of beauty.
Ye who pass by me, listen to my prayer: Harm me not.