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Thuja occidentalis L.

Arborvitae, Northern white cedar

Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry
  4. Toxicity
  5. Description
  6. Germplasm
  7. Distribution
  8. Ecology
  9. Cultivation
  10. Harvesting
  11. Yields and Economics
  12. Energy
  13. Biotic Factors
  14. References


Ojibwa Indians are said to have made soup from the inner bark of the young twigs. The twigs are used to make teas, perhaps more medicinal (for constipation, headache) than culinary. Speaking of the gums, Captain John Smith said, "We tryed conclusions to extract it out of the wood, but nature afforded more gums than our arts." (Erichsen-Brown, 1979). The essential oil is used in cleansers, disinfectants, hair preparations, insecticides, liniment, room sprays, and soft soaps, sometimes an adulterant of oils of artemisia, dalmation sage, and tansy. Powdered leaves are reported to kill flies in 2 hours, the vaporized leaf powder to kill ticks (C.S.I.R., 1948–1976). Wood contains a heat stable antibiotic useful as a food preservative. Potawatomi rolled up the bark into wads which served as torches. Deer browse the young shoots. Sometimes grown as a Christmas tree, e.g. in India. Attractive for hedges and windbreaks. The timbers were used to make the ribs in the Indians' birchbark canoes (Erichsen-Brown, 1979). Valuable timber tree today, the heartwood lightweight and decay resistant. Used for poles shakes, shingles, and siding.

Folk Medicine

According to Hartwell (1967–1971), the plant, usually as a tincture, is used in folk remedies for benign skin tumors, cancers, condylomata (of penis and vulva), excrescences, fungous flesh, neoplasms, papillomas, plantar warts, polyps, tumors, and warts. Reported to be anaphrodisiac, diaphoretic, diuretic, lactagogue, and laxative, arbor vitae is a folk remedy for burns, colds, consumption, cough, debility, distemper, dysentery, dysmenorrhea, fever, gout, headache, inflammation, malaria, paralysis, rheumatism, swollen extremities, toothache, and worms (Duke and Wain, 1981). The charcoal, mixed with bear gall, was introduced under the skin, after application, with needles in early Indian acupuncture, which resulted in black tatoos. Chippewa pricked the charcoal powder into the temples as an analgesic and used the leaves in cough compounds. Hurons used the boughs for their bed as a snake repellant. Menominee used in herbal steam and smudges for skin ailments and unconsciousness; they decocted the inner bark for amenorrhea, and poulticed powdered leaves onto swellings. Montagnai decocted the bruised twigs as a diaphoretic. Ojibwa used the leaf decoction as an analgetic, antitussive, depurative, and smoked objects and steamed themselves with the smoke or steam as a ceremonial cleansing. Penobscot poulticed the leaves onto hands and feet, and used for cancerous warts. Potawatomi treated the plant almost like a panacea, and burned the leaves over the coals as medicine, ceremonial purification, and to repel evil spirits (Duke, 1983c). Sources cited in Hager's Handbook report that homeopathic doses are effective against animal and plant viruses and that the plant affords protection against schistosomiasis. Hager's Handbook also lists many homeopathic applications, e.g. amnesia, angina, blepharitis, cholecystosis, condylomata, conjunctivitis, gonorrhea, gout, melancholy, myalgia, neuralgia, otitis, pertussis, pharyngitis, pruritus, rheumatism, rhinitis, trachitis, etc. (List and Horhammer, 1969–1979).


Seeds contain 15% oil. Heartwood contains b- and a-eudesmol, occidol, and occidiol. Branches and attached leaves run from ca 0.3–1.0% essential oil, 15-year-old trees yielding 50% more than 30-year-old trees. Guenther lists as major components d-a-pinene, d-a-thujone, 1-fenchone, 1-borneal, acetic-, formic-, and isovaleric-acids. Hager's Handbook adds terpineol, sabinene, camphene, camphor, valerianic acid, occidol, b-sitosterol, quercitrin, rhodoxanthine (C40H50O2), 5.9% tannin, resins, mucilage, vit. C, etc. (List and Horhammer, 1969–1979).


Poisonous cases of fatalities have resulted from use of the oil as abortifacient (C.S.I.R., 1948–1976).


Medium sized, monoecious, evergreen tree. Bark gray-brown to reddish, fibrous. Scales 1.5–4 mm long, some long pointed, some rounded, closely imbricate, closely appressed or adnate to twigs, the small thickly-leaved branchlets flat. Cones on the ends of branchlets, male cones ca 1 mm in diameter, shedding pollen March–April (se US), female cones 1–2 cm long at maturity, sporophylls closely imbricate, some minutely spine-tipped, shedding seeds September–October of 1st year; seeds broadly winged (Radford et al., 1968).


Reported from the North American Center of Diversity, arbor vitae, or cvs thereof, is reported to tolerate frost, limestone, and slopes. While growing both in swampland upland sites, it does not develop well on extremely wet or dry sites.


Nova Scotia to Maine and westward to Minnesota and Manitoba; southward in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and New York; and locally in Appalachian Mountains (Ag. Handbook 450, 1974).


Estimated to range naturally from Cool Temperate Dry to Wet through Boreal Moist to Wet Forest Life Zones, arbor vitae is estimated to tolerate annual precipitation of 6 to 15 dm, annual temperature of 5 to 13°C, and PH of 6.0 to 8.0.


Seeds are extracted from large quantities of cones by 4-hour exposure to internal-fan type kiln to ca 55°C and RH 38%. Seeds are fall sown with a target of ca 650 seedlings/m2, the seeds covered 2–4 mm with soil. Half-shade is recommended over the seedbed the first season and a mulch over the seedlings. Horticultural cvs. are propagated by cutting and layering.


Guenther (1952) gives a picturesque account of the harvesting of some of the eastern cedar forests. Two or three farmers form a team, cutting and distilling the brush that grows on certain tracts. Usually a whole tree is felled, and the ends of the branches with adherent leaves are trimmed off with long heavy knives. Nothing is wasted; the wood serves as fuel, and even the distilled (exhausted) material is dried and used as fuel. After one section has been cleaned of cedar, the still and steam boiler are moved to another. It may often be necessary to move several times in one season. Distillation takes place in rather crude stills, the boiler or engine being the only modern piece of equipment. The still box is usually constructed of spruce planking, tongued and grooved,.the planks being fitted tightly together. Any crevices are calked with oakum or other packing material so as to prevent the escape of steam. The still box is closed with a cover raised or lowered with ropes and pulleys attached to a long pole. A steam-connecting pipe leads to the condenser, made from piping resembling an ordinary wall radiator. The condenser is enclosed in a box with an open top into which water is allowed to flow, if possible by gravity, or with the aid of either steam or hand pumps. The necessary steam is generated by old boilers. Large cans are occasionally employed to catch the distillate, and as the oil separates from the water it is scooped from the top. The oil is often sold in local country stores. The storekeepers may have to accumulate small lots from as many as ten individual producers before being able to ship a single drum of oil. Local dealers, as well as the few producers who have large quantities to offer, sell their oil to essential oil houses in New York where the crude product must be treated before the oil can be offered on the market

Yields and Economics

The following companies deal in cedar-leaf oil: D.W. Hutchinson & Co., Inc., 700 South Columbus Avenue, Mt. Vernon, New York 10550, (914) 664–7272; Lebermuth Co., P.O. Box 4103, South Bend, Indiana 46624, (219) 546–2944; Polarome Manufacturing Co., Inc., 22 Ericsson Place, New York, New York 10013, (212) 344–1120; and Teal's Evergreens, Inc., P.O. Box 85, Bark River, Michigan 49807, (906) 466–9941.


According to the phytomass files (Duke, 1981b), a 90-year-old stand has standing biomass of 135 MT/ha. Both wood and spent distillate has been used for fuel (see Harvest above).

Biotic Factors

Bagworms (Clania variegata) may strip the foliage unless treated with 2% parathion dust (C.S.I.R., 1948–1976). The following are listed as affecting arbor vitae: Aleurodiscus nivosus, Armillaria mellea, Ceratocystis piceae, Ceratostomella sp., Clitocybe tabescens, Coniophora puteana, Corticium galactinum, Didymascella thujina, Diplodia sp., Diplodia thujina, Fomes annosus, F. pini, F. roseus, Fusarium solani, Gymnosporangium clavipes, G. juniperi-virginianae, Hormodendrum microsporum, Hymenochaete corrugate, H. tabacina, H. tenuis, Hysterium thujae, Lenzites saepiaria, Lophodermium thuyae, Micropera tenella, Mycosphaerella conigena, M. pinsapo, Mytilidion thujarum, Peniophora gigantea, Pestalotia funerea, Pestalotiopsis funerea, Phacidium infestans, Phomopsis juniperovora, P. occulta, Phymatotrichum omnivorum, Physalospora obtusa, Phytophthora sp., Pithya cupressina, Polyporus adustus, P. balsameus, P. hirsutus, P. schweinitzii, P. versicolor, Poria ferruginosa, P. papyracea, P. rufa, P. subacida, P. subiculosa, P. versipora, P. weirii, Rhizoctonia solani, Schizophylium commune, Stamnaria thujae, Trametes isabellina, and Valsa thujae (Ag. Handbook No. 165, 1960 and Browne, 1968). Also listed in Browne (1968) as affecting arbor vitae are: Coleoptera: Phloeosinus aubei, P. canadensis. Hemiptera: Cinara juniperi, C. tujafilina, Stomaphis quercus. Hymenoptera: Camponotus spp., Neodiprion lecontei. Lepidoptera: Argyresthia aureoargentella, A. freyella, A. thuiella, Coleotechnnites thujaella, Ectropis crepuscularia. Mamallia: Alces alces, Erethizon dorsatum, Euarctos americanus, Odocoileus virginianus. Nematodes include Criconemella lobata, Hemicycliophora sp., Longidorus marimus, Paratylenchus sp., Pratylenchus penetrans, Rotylenchus robustus, R. uniformis, and Tylenchorhynchus maximus (Golden, p.c. 1984).


Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
Last update Friday, January 9, 1998 by aw