I seem to have unleashed a thirst for learning the names of all the trees who live with us on this land to which Margy and I belong. Today, I am exploring the cedar tree in our southeastern boundary area. I had always wondered about the difference between cedars and arborvitaes, and now I know that they are the same, really, here where we live. There are a lot of names for this species which is native to southeastern Canada and northeastern United States–Eastern White Cedar, Northern White Cedar, White Cedar, False Cedar (because it is not related to European cedars). Its Latin name is Thuja occidentalis.
It was first called Arborvitae by French explorers when Indigenous people gave them tea made of its leaves as a treatment for scurvy. Arborvitae means “tree of life.” Now, arborvitae is the name used by horticulturists, and there are many cultivars of the tree that are sold for landscaping. The Anishinaabe people called the tree Nookomis Giizhik or Grandmother Cedar, because of its importance as a sacred and medicinal tree, associated with one of the four directions.
This has been a special tree to me personally in most of the places I have lived–Michigan, Chicago, northern New York state, Massachusetts, and Maine, and I appreciate that my matrilineal ancestors also knew this tree in Quebec/Nitassinan. The Innu word for this tree is Massishk. The tea from its leaves contains an abundance of Vitamin C, and can be used as a medicine. (Note–being cautious, it is recommended that pregnant women should not use cedar tea because the compound thujone within it.)
From Sean Sherman (The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen):
The tea of simmered branches is used to treat fevers and rheumatic complaints, chest colds, and flu. This brew is delicious warm or cold and is simple to make. Just simmer 2 cups of fresh cedar in 4 cups of boiling water for about 10 minutes until the water becomes a golden color. Strain off the cedar and sweeten with maple syrup, to taste.