The Magic of Western Redcedar

On my first ever wildcrafting adventure over a decade ago, my best friend and I meandered into the woods on property belonging to an acquaintance. We were armed with baskets, garden shears, plant field guides, and the boundless enthusiasm reserved for the utterly uninformed.

Many plants caught my attention that day, but the one I couldn’t stay away from was the ubiquitous evergreen with sweeping, fern-like foliage and a sweet, citrus-pine fragrance. Every time I came across another of the beautiful trees I cut a few fronds, until I had an armful of fragrant evergreen.

Redcedar growing in a public park

I didn’t manage to identify the tree that day, but I felt the urge to make smudge sticks (something I’d only done once before). So I found some embroidery floss and made a pile of oddly proportioned bundles. Odd or not, they made a sweet, pleasant smudge when they dried, and they’ve been my favorite variety of smudge ever since.

In time I learned the name of the tree: Western redcedar (Thuja plicata), a.k.a. Pacific redcedar, western arborvitae or giant arborvitae. Thujas are not true cedars: instead, they are members of the cypress (Cupressaceae) family, which also includes junipers.

Light lime green foliage and immature cones on a young redcedar

I also learned its a native of the Pacific Northwest, thriving in damp coastal forests from Northern California all the way to the southeastern tip of the Alaska Panhandle. According to Northwest Trees by Stephen F. Arno & Ramona P. Hammerly, western redcedar was vital to the well-being of the natives of the Northwest Coast. It was so important they referred to its spirit as “Long Life Maker”.

The herbalist Michael Moore, in his Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, extols the virtues of western redcedar as an antifungal and antibacterial healer with many applications.

So how does one work with this beautiful tree at the metaphysical level?

Redcedar is a true survivor. One of her names–arborvitae–means “tree of life”. Redcedar thrives in wet shade, where many conifers can’t grow. And though her bark is very thin, she continues to grow even when she’s been hollowed out by fire or decay. Sometimes a broken branch that falls on moist ground will take root, and a fallen and uprooted redcedar can grow a row of young saplings from its branches.

Redcedar continues to grow even when hollowed out by fire or decay

I see her as an ally for the devastated, for those who feel stripped bare and empty. She can teach us to grow and thrive in in the wake of deep trauma.

She is also a tree of purification, the plant can be used in many ways. Smudge sticks are a common use, but the dry foliage can easily be crumbled or ground and smoldered on charcoal. It can be used alone, or combined happily with other resins.

Sweeping foliage

If smoke isn’t practical for whatever reason, the tree also lends itself well to both hot and cold infusions. The resultant brew could be placed in a spray bottle and used to mist one’s room or one’s face, added to a magical bath, or sprinkled around the ritual circle (preferably with a fresh sprig of western redcedar).

I find the purification properties sit side by side with an element of blessing. As it purifies any negative energy in a space, it brings a gentle hum of happy, peaceful sweetness.

Western redcedar is energetically healing as well. For metaphysical healing, one could carry any part of the tree, smudge with the smoke, or use it in the bath as mentioned previously.

    Redcedar's thin, reddish bark grows in strips.

I also like to take a fresh branch, dislodge any insect inhabitants, and use it to sweep the aura / energy field during energy work and magical healing ceremonies.

But my favorite way to interact with the spirit of western redcedar is to simply sit beneath one, leaning against its trunk, close my eyes, and breathe in its beautiful aroma. As I sit with the tree, I try to breathe naturally and gently, and pay attention to how my body is feeling. The longer I sit, the more relaxed, clear, and tranquil I feel.

A final interesting note for residents of this region, John Michael Greer suggests redcedar as a substitute for Nuin / ash in his Pacific Northwest Ogham article.

Want to learn more about making magic with plants? Contact me with your questions!

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