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Indigenous Peoples' Perspective Project

Eastern Red Cedar

Scientific Name: Juniperus virginiana

Common Name: Eastern red cedar, eastern redcedar, Virginian juniper, eastern juniper, red juniper, pencil cedar, and aromatic cedar

Plant Family: Cupressaceae (Cypress family)

Etymology: Juniperus translates directly to juniper in Latin, and in Dutch juniper (genever) refers to distilled gin. 

Parts Used: leaves, fruit, roots, wood

Season: year-round

Indigenous Uses

Eastern red cedar is a sacred tree for indigenous peoples. It served many medicinal purposes. The wood and leaves contain antibacterial compounds, and the leaves, bark and twigs contain analgesic flavonoids. It was used as a tea to relieve coughs, colds, and canker sores. It also treated female obstructions, measles, and rheumatism. The leaves were used to treat chest pains made into ointments to relieve itching and cutaneous diseases. An infusion of leaves was used as a diuretic and to treat urinary tract infections. The berries were boiled in sweet milk to treat worms. As a craft product, Eastern red cedar was used for carving, furniture, fence posts, and moth proofing. Juniperus virginiana was used as a spiritual incense and as an aromatic wood to make instruments. Smudge sticks were made with the leaves for purification rituals. The roots and inner bark were woven into cordage. The last foot of branches would be snipped off, dried green like a smudge stick, and laid next to a bed of coals upwind of camp to serve as a diffused insect repellent. The berries were simmered with the oil skimmed off for a topical insect repellent.

Edible Parts

Collect only the ripe dark purple or blue fleshy cones—green and pale unripe ones will appear on the same plant. Pick juniper “berries” individually and place in a sturdy container to avoid crushing them. Fresh or dried, use as a flavoring in sauerkraut, meat dishes, or soups. Make a spicy tea rich in minerals and flavonoids. The dusty coating on ripe juniper cones is a yeast that can be used to start fermentation in beermaking and breadmaking.

Caution: Eat in moderation. While juniper berries have been safely eaten for thousands of years, they are slightly toxic in large amounts.

This project was made possible by a grant from Maryland Humanities, with funding received from the Maryland Historical Trust in the Maryland Department of Planning. Maryland Humanities’ Grants Program is also supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and private funders. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed on this website do not necessarily represent those of Maryland Humanities, Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland Department of Planning, or National Endowment for the Humanities.

Header photo by Kathy Thornton