Traditionally, Christmas trees in the southern US were more often than not Eastern Red Cedars, which are not cedars by any means but rather a juniper! When you’re Christmas tree-shopping these days you’ll find an array of Noble, Frasier, or Douglas firs transported down from the Pacific Northwest, but after reading this article, you may opt to buy a locally grown Eastern Red Cedar for more reasons than aesthetical ones.
Juniperus virginiana offers up a rich history. Did you know that this family of conifers are some of the oldest on earth? Ancient Egyptians used the wood of junipers for building in 1300 B.C.! Native Americans considered the Eastern Red Cedar the Tree of Life—numerous tribes have recognized the Eastern Red Cedar as “holy” for centuries, and juniper red wood was often burned during prayer, purification rituals, and sweat lodges. The pleasant scent of the tree seemed very much alive to Native Americans, and was thought to hold power in the form of ancestors’ spirits. Folklore says the Juniperus virginiana was burned to invite in positive energy and peace—by driving out negative entities!!
Historically, the Eastern Red Cedar was used medicinally for an array of ailments; the Seminole used the needles and berries to treat cold symptoms, swollen joints, stiff neck/back, fever, headache, and dizziness. As with many medicinal herbs, it is recommended to use small doses and sparingly. These berries and needles can be bought dried from your local organic store; or you can always harvest your own! The berries make a great flavoring agent, especially for wild game, stuffing, stews, marinade, and of course: gin.
Gin (and juniper berries) were popularized in the mid-18th century when a Dutch physician concocted a diuretic derived from Juniperus communis berries, which—the populace soon discovered—had intoxicating side-effects! Almost immediately following this discovery, the English government stopped allowing the unlicensed production of alcohol in stills and implemented the Gin Act of 1751. To this day juniper berries are still the predominant flavor in gin.
Today these berries are widely used in the pharmaceutical field as well. Juniper berries and needles contain the potent antiviral compound podophyllotoxin (PPT). That really long name is a naturally occurring chemical compound extracted from the roots and rhizomes of plants in the Juniperus & Podophyllum (Mayapple) genera. That means many topical solutions used to treat ailments ranging from acne to HPV to the newest “superbug” MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) come from plants that grow wild in these Ozark hills!!
Now remember, the next time you’re about to rip out that tiny cedar; think about the history of the Seminole Indians or the future medical miracles these saplings hold and of course when out purchasing a Christmas tree this year, considering opting for a live Eastern Red Cedar and evoke the positive energy of your past ancestors this holiday season!! Sincerely, Sam