Monday, December 22, 2014

Earth to sky, The Powerful Combination of Cedar and Oregon Grape

Western Red cedar and Oregon Grape are two massive powerhouses of medicinal virtue. Combined together they offer a harmonious balance of immune system supports. Each has a long and rich history of medicinal use, while modern medicine is just catching up!

Western Red cedar
Thuja plicata

Native to the Pacific northwest coastal regions of the United States and canada, cedar has spread to various regions, world wide as well, even being "naturalized" in Great Brittan.  Cedar was referred to as the tree of life by the Native first peoples of the Pacific northwest area because of the incredible number of ways that it supported their existence. The tree would carry the individual virtually in every way, literally from the cradle to the grave. Small beds for children and infants would be made from cedar wood, Clothing was made from its bark and burial rites involved cedar as well.

A close up of Cedar sprigs showing the leaf growth patterns which make it easily identifiable
Cedar is actually not a true cedar being in the genus Thuja and is distinctly identifiable by its leaf pattern. The scale-like leaves grow in opposite pairs along the branching stems which spread out in a flat spray from a central branch.

Cedar is perhaps best known for its incredible rot resistant properties, the fallen logs of older trees taking many decades to decompose.  It is now known these attributes are due to the presence of a compound in the tree called as thujaplicin an antifungul of unequaled power which also happens to carry strong antibacterial and antioxidant properties as well. Red cedars are also rich in flavonols, procyanidins, quercitin, kaempferol, volatile oils, and catechins (the same compound of great fame found in green tea).  

Native healers exploited the many powerful compounds in Cedar to treat fevers, sore throats, coughs, colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculous infections, diarrhea, boils, heart and kidney problems, menstrual disorders, ringworm and other fungal skin infections, toothaches, arthritis, sore muscles, vaginitis, and bladder irritation. Naturopaths, herbalists and adventurous physicians in North America and Europe have utilized Wester Red AND Nothern White Cedar for these same ailments as well as prostate problems, incontinence, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Modern science is just now  catching up to the old ways, and now confirms the antibatcerial, antiviral and antifungul powers of thujaplicin as well as the antioxidant,  and immune system enhancing properties of various other compounds found in the native Cedars of North America.

Caution: The compounds in Red Cedar which stimulate the smooth muscle tissue make it a risk to women who are pregnant as it may induce contractions. Do not use Red Cedar if you are pregnant. 
Also, there are some products which contain the extracted essential oil of Cedar. These products should not be taken internally as the concentrated oil poses serious health risks if ingested. 

Oregon Grape
Mahonia aquifolium, nervosa

  Oregon grape can be found sporadically throughout the Northern US but its highest concentrations are found it its native woodlands of the Northwest in the foothills to lower elevations. At first glance it bears strong resemblance to Holly with its spiny, tear drop leaves, grouped in leaflets emanating from a central stem.

The medicinal value of Oregon grape starts with its very bitter taste due to a high content of tannins as well as strong alkaloids. These constituents stimulate the flow of bile and enhancing liver function and detoxifying digestive organs. Its benefits to the digestive system continues with a sedative effect on the smooth muscle tissue, easing cramps, aiding constipation, and soothing inflammation.The cooling soothing qualities of the plant tannins also eases the inflammation and irritation associated with  psoriasis and other dermatitis related conditions

One of the more potent alkaloids in Oregon Grape is a substance called berberine. Berberine is known to have strong antimicrobial qualities as well as being a multidrug resistance pump inhibitor (MDR inhibitor). This means it is effective at diminishing the resistance bacteria have to antibiotics. With these properties Oregon grape has long been used by herbalists ancient and modern to fight infections of many types both topical as well as internal.  

Caution: Because of its stimulating effects on the digestive system and other smooth muscle tissues Oregon Grape should not be ingested if suffering from chronic diarrhea or during pregnancy.

Because of its own strong antimicrobial properties, its diminishing of bacterias resistance to antibiotic treatments as well as its benefits to the digestive system Oregon Grape becomes the perfect compliment to Western Red cedar as a treatment for seasonal ailments especially when the digestive system is affected as in the case of a bad flu.

For long term storage I like to prepare cedar and Oregon Grape as a tincture. This is also an efficient way to administer doses in a more palatable way if extremely bitter tea is not your thing! 

Harvesting Cedar and Oregon Grape

The fresh tender tips of a cedar bough
The ideal time for collecting Cedar is in the summer or the fall when the oils are at their highest and the tree has been collecting its nutrients. However any time of year is fine for good medicine.

Best harvesting for Cedar is done at the ends of the low hanging boughs. With pruning sheers you can snip a large amount of the delicate ends without causing any significant damage to the tree. This also ensures the freshest growth with the highest levels of the beneficial compounds. Collect all your trimming in a bag and keep in mind that a little bit will go a long way. You can collect enough Cedar to make tinctures for your whole family and probably some friends with just a few well placed snips. Often after powerful wind storms you can find blow downs of Cedar twigs with good medicine in them. 

Oregon Grape is just a little more tricky but not much.

An exposed Oregon grape root showing the characteristic, intense yellow color of its potent medicinal alkaloids.

Best time for harvesting Oregon grape is in the fall to early winter. This is when the plant has entered its dormant phase and has concentrated all its nutrients and energy in its root system which is where you want to go for the highest concentrations of the effective ingredients.

When you find a good plant, follow the leaf stems to the central stalk and give it a gentle tug to start  loosening it from the soil. With your hand or a trowel begin clearing the soil from over the root stem. Most often the roots of Oregon Grape will run under the soil, parallel to the surface, making it easy to find a long length of it without having to dig out great quantities of dirt. Keep scraping and clearing away dirt until the root goes too deep or the soil becomes too dense. At this point you can clip off the root where it disappears into the ground. The remaining root system will quickly recover and begin producing more plant off-shoots. It is a VERY hardy plant and quick to propagate from root stocks as long as some remains in the ground. 

Keep your collection secure in a reusable grocery bag.

Preparing the plant material for tincture

 Rinse the Oregon Grape roots very well under cold water to remove excess dirt. With pruning shears or a strong kitchen knife trim the roots into short sections 

With a sharp pocket knife gently scrape off the outer layer of root bark. A soft touch is key here. It does not take hardly any pressure at all to start exposing the yellow inner bark.

This is more or less what the root should look like when you have taken off the outer bark. Its ok to have some remnants of outer bark and you could even forgo this entire step in the process but I like to get as much of the material I need with as little excess as possible. 

With a bit more pressure begin shaving the inner bark away from the core of the root. The inner bark layer will easily lift away and this scraping can be done quickly but be careful with sharp knives!

When you have scraped the root down to the creamy white color of the inner core you have gone far enough. Continue this process along the entire length of the root until all the yellow inner bark has been removed. 

Collect all the shavings on a baking pan or other wide flat surface. Fluff the material and spread it out so that it can air dry for a day or so. 

When the inner root has had a chance to dry a bit you can add the cedar. This is easily done simply by snipping the cedar twigs into tiny pieces using a good pair of kitchen sheers. 

 When the Cedar is well chopped into small pieces toss both ingredients together so they are evenly blended

Carefully pour the entire blend into a jar large enough to hold the plant material while leaving about half the jar empty after very gently pressing down the chopped plants. Then fill the rest of of the jar with a strong clear alcohol. 80 proof vodka or Everclear is a good option but if you are not a fan of alcohol then you can also use Apple cider vinegar but then you should leave it soaking for a couple extra weeks. Remember to shake it daily if possible!

After the tincture has soaked for about 4 weeks pour the entire contents into a strainer and catch all the liquid in a new jar. Firmly press the plant material into the strainer in order to squeeze out as much liquid as you can.

You can leave the brew in a large bottle or separate the contents into smaller bottles with dropper tops. This is what I like to do as it provides an easy method for applying doses and if you use the amber tinted bottlees, the solution wwill be safe from UV exposure. This is a powerful medicine and a little bit will go a long way. Store in a cool dark place for up to 1 year.

If I am using it for treating colds and flus I mix 1-2 droppers full into a cup of tea with honey and lemon 3-4 times a day.

If you are new to the world of wild plants I strongly recommend finding and talking to an experienced wild herbalist. It is very likely that there is one offering classes or instructional day hikes near you and as always please consult your physician for any medical advice.

Thanks for reading!

This post was shared with the    Homestead Bloghop, Homemaker LinkupWow us wednesday, From the Farm Hop   Wildcrafting wednesday

 If you would like to review the medical literature which demonstrates the effectiveness of these plants as a medicinal treatment please see the following references:

for Cedar (specifically the thujaplicin constituent)

For Oregon Grape (specifically the alkaloid berberine)

Mama Kautz


  1. I so with both grew here in Alaska! I know we have cedar varieties further south than us, but not where I'm at. Very interesting post! Thanks for sharing at Homestead Blog Hop!

    1. Hi and thanks for reading! What part of Alaska are you in? Both plants reach as far as south east alaska.
      Or perhaps there are other plants species with berberine alkaloids and I would wager there are some with similar properties as Thuja plicata.
      Stay tuned for more good plant stuff! ;)

  2. Thank you for the step by step pics. I have not been able to grasp technique so easily even after having read multiple other sites. I wasted material my 1st attempt at harvesting Oregon grape yesterday & now that wont happen again!

  3. Thank you for the step by step pics. I have not been able to grasp technique so easily even after having read multiple other sites. I wasted material my 1st attempt at harvesting Oregon grape yesterday & now that wont happen again!

  4. Thanks For sharing this Superb article.I use this Article to show my assignment in is useful For me Great Work. sky customer service free number

  5. I have read a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style of blogging. I added it to my favorites blog site list and will be checking back soon. Please check out my site as well and let me know what you think. sky tv