Sumac – Sour Power and Culinary Healing

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**Disclaimer** The information in this article on sumac is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Properties: Diaphoretic, Antibiotic, Antiscorbutic, Antidiarrheal, Antiasthmatic, Diuretic, Tonic, Alterative, Antimicrobial, Astringent.

Energetics/Flavor Profile: Cool, dry, sour, astringent.

Parts Used: Berries/Fruits, Leaves, Bark, Twigs.

Smooth Sumac | Iowa Herbalist

When I was a little girl playing in my family’s big sloped garden in Utah, I would spend a lot of time in the little stand of Sumac there.  I remember it clearly – and for that I consider Sumac a childhood friend of sorts.

A patch of Sumac is the perfect place for a kid to play and pretend they’re in a different world, completely hidden from an adult’s prying eyes.

As an herbalist and wild food fan, my friendship with Sumac has continued to the present.  In a chef’s words, the flavor profile of Sumac is sour and light; in an herbalist’s words, its “energetics” are cool and dry, sour and astringent.  Sound similar, right?

That might be because Sumac has been a popular wild food, culinary spice, and folk medicine for hundreds of years among many cultures.  When a single herb crosses over into all these categories, then you really know it’s a good food and herb.

A huge lover of Sumac, I will sometimes try to talk about how awesome this plant really is for you, healing-wise and nutritionally.  Most of the time I’ll get a glazed, unknowing, fairly uninterested look.

One response I got was: “Oh, you mean those long, branching, pokey things you see along the highway, with the fiery berries?”  Yes, those.

Sumac’s Healing and Nutritional Properties

For starters, the species of Sumac I’m most familiar with is a robust Midwestern version: Smooth Sumac, scientific name Rhus glabra.

There aren’t many tinctures, bitters, capsules, or supplements of Sumac available for you to try at your local natural foods store (though I do make my own tinctures and bitters available in my shop).  Thus hardly anybody knows what to say about it, even the majority of herbalists.  But Sumac deserves its own attention outside the mainstream – and I just love an underdog.

If you want to go out there and get to know this plant and its exceptional qualities, it will require a hike or a short walk rather than a trip to the whole foods store.  Though you can find “culinary” Sumac, a sour, burgundy-red powder and popular Middle Eastern spice at some local shops.  Experiment with that, if you like, though its effects and health properties are not something I’m familiar with.

Otherwise, you can walk up to this plant and with your fingers or a knife, and gently snap off or cut away the clusters of soft, red berries…respectfully, of course.

Sumac Drupe | Iowa Herbalist
Photo Credit

Sumac’s Properties:

  • High in Vitamin C for immunity
  • Antioxidants for cellular protection
  • Gallic acids – potent antimicrobials

Not only does Sumac contain ample Vitamin C and Antioxidants like its contemporaries Hibiscus, Rose, and Raspberry – it also hosts powerful Gallic Acids that make it a worthy opponent for bacteria, fungus, even viruses alike.

Yes, there are studies to prove it: “…of 100 medicinal plants screened for antibiotic activity, [Rhus glabra] was most active, attributed to content of gallic acid, 4-methoxygallic acid, and methyl gallate.  Alcoholic extracts had the strongest activity.” (Foster, Duke; Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, p. 281).

Another study demonstrated Smooth Sumac’s (tincture of the berry) efficacy against certain strains of bacteria, including Staph, E. Coli, Salmonella, and the much-feared yeast Candida.  The Middle Eastern species of Sumac, Rhus coriara, was able to destroy Streptococcus bacteria, the cause for Strep Throat. (1)

More Healing Facts About Sumac:

  • Sumac’s berries showed anti-diabetic, hypoglycemic activity
  • Abilities to help lower cholesterol, while boosting good cholesterol
  • Could prevent hardening of the arteries (2)

Bottles Apothecary | Iowa Herbalist

Studies aren’t needed to support this one, but powdered Sumac (or whole berries) make an excellent cooling beverage when mixed with some lemon, classically called “Sumac-Ade.”  Plus, the powdered berry from its roots as a Middle Eastern culinary spice (known as za’atar), is an excellent food pairing with grilled fish or chicken!

I will stop and say here that yes, Sumac-Ade is quite delicious – and you can learn how to make it here.  But if you want a potent healing infusion of Sumac berries, simply cold-steeping to get only the pleasantly sour aspect will produce a weak and hardly effective tea.  That’s right…you’ve got to boil it or at the very least heat it in some way, until the water is a darker, vivid yellowish-red color.

Don’t worry, it will still be plenty sour, though it will also have an earthy, bitter taste that might repel most people – unless you’re one of those people who knows, of course, that bitterness means the “medicine is working.”

Traditional Healing Uses of Sumac:

  • Opens the pores, promoting sweating and elimination – fever-supporting
  • Strengthens the kidneys
  • Relieves and prevents diarrhea
  • Fights colds, flus, and infection of the mouth and digestive tract

Sumac is a great digestive tonic, but definitely under-utilized as a wonderful bitters (though there are some great bitters out there). Interestingly, traditional and folk use seemed to emphasize its affinity to mouth infections specifically.  It’s fun for me to say that my experiences lined up with that, too.

Sumac Sinus Rinse | Iowa Herbalist

My Experiences With Sumac

Four years ago, a case of strep throat hit me in late November 2012.  With no health insurance, being at least 30 miles away from a clinic and practically penniless, I rummaged my plant resources.

I didn’t have ideal strep-fighting herbs with me at the time, such as Usnea (Usnea spp.) or Red Root/New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), so I set about trying to, somewhat creatively, figure out how I could kick the illness.  Even then, take it from me though: if you can get access to healthcare to take care of your strep…DO IT! 

Strep can be dangerous.  I do not recommend going this route, as this was an option I faced in the desperation of wintertime poverty deep in rural Iowa.

For the first two days using various other herbs in teas, I didn’t see a whole lot of improvement.  I then opted also for Smooth Sumac tincture added into the mixture I was using.  I went out on a bit of a limb relying on this herb – though I had stumbled upon its anti-microbial research, and was intrigued.

I took the tincture internally, three times a day.  But a gargle of Sumac tincture in water at least three times a day – allowing direct contact on my swollen, infected throat – was what I believe the biggest impact on Strep.  I was a combination of surprised and pleased: every time I gargled with Sumac, there were very observable results day-to-day, and the infection progressively withdrew!

I did this for about a week, eventually chucking all the other herbs and mostly just relying on the Smooth Sumac.  In spite of not having found any information or research yet on Sumac fighting Strep throat bacteria specifically, the infection hit the road.

From that time forward, I decided I really appreciated the stuff. I would be fated to make more if it, and I started to put it in almost everything (cause it tastes delicious, too)!

Sky View Sumac | Iowa Herbalist

The experiences continued.  In the next winter of 2013, after getting four wisdom teeth yanked out of my face, Sumac was my go-to remedy. I even preferred it over the prescription antibiotic mouth-rinse the dentists gave me afterward, and it still sits unused on my shelf even today.

Needless to say, I avoided the common post-surgery “dry-socket” problem.  When one of the clots broke, it took a single swishing-session of Sumac tincture to stop the bleeding.  The next gargle, I was amazed to feel that the hole had somehow pinched together and clotted, back on track to closing itself up.

Other’s Experiences With Sumac

Not long after my strep experience, a co-worker of mine at the time approached me with an abscessed tooth.

He fretted because it had been abscessed for a while.  He didn’t just want to go to a doctor, pay the money, and get it taken care of, with antibiotics and penicillin and the like.  The tooth had been hurting him the last few days, and it frightened him that it was getting infected.

Without thinking it would really take care of the problem – maybe just help it, a bit – I said “Hey, try Sumac tincture.  It seemed to get rid of my strep throat.” It was an easy sell,  considering my co-worker’s enthusiasm for herbal remedies.

Less than a week later, he came to me saying not only had the pain and infection gone, but the tooth was no longer abscessed!  He seemed as shocked and awed as I was, but definitely happy.

Sumac: History, Information, Background, and Tradition

There are many different species of Sumac, all belonging to the genus Rhus.  

There are other species of Sumac in Iowa.  One other, Staghorn Sumac, (Rhus typhina) is also native to Iowa.  Its range clings closely to the banks of the Upper Mississippi region and the Driftless region of the state, then spreads north and eastward.

Poison Sumac (Rhus toxicodendron) is quite similar looking to other sumacs, with white instead of red berries.  However, it is incredibly uncommon in Iowa; the only place where you might stumble upon it would be on the banks of the Mississippi.  Just make sure the Sumac you are harvesting has berries, and that they are definitely not white (not much of a challenge).

Like its namesake, Sumac is typically seen growing gingerly at the forest’s edge, in the shadows of clearings on the paths where deer are known to frequent.  According to herbalist Matthew Wood, Sumac is a Deer Medicine.

Deer Iowa | Iowa Herbalist

Deer Medicine is a categorization of certain types of herbs originating from American Indian Medicine practices, though I couldn’t tell you which exact people or nations.  Deer Medicines, as Wood puts them, are meant to be “juicy and beautiful, and plants that attract deer.”

I have seen many a deer hiding among stands of Sumac, blending right in with its graceful branches and jagged foliage.  It is, indeed, the perfect haven for deer to hide.

Being an important part of herbal healing of past and future tradition, Sumac in my mind perfectly reflects and represents itself as a symbol of Iowa herbalism- a state and region where the deer themselves are incredibly prolific.

There is an incredible amount of knowledge going way, way back on the many uses of Sumacs, also spelled “sumach”; both from the acumen of historical texts and the rich lore of old traditional cultures, in North America, Europe, and Africa.

In Iowa, Sumacs- particularly Smooth Sumac- were important and prevalent medicines among some original cultures native to the state, or those who were known to pass through Iowa regularly.  The Cahokia Indians, early agriculturists of Iowa, were thought to have cultivated Sumac along the Upper Mississippi as food, no doubt as medicine.

Sumac Basket | Iowa Herbalist

The Omahas most notably had a wide range of uses for it, along with the Meskwaki, who are the last-standing Indian nation with a settlement present here in Iowa.  I personally think this long-time use of Sumac is a strong reason to consider it a vital herbal, especially one with strong cultural and regional ties to healing traditions rooted right here, in the state of Iowa.

The antique literature out there backs up Sumac’s usefulness as a medicine for the mouth, resonating with both its research and my own experiences. One herbal mentions its folk use in the Ozarks as a chew stick for cleaning teeth, by stripping the bark off a thin twig and massaging the gums.

A modern study confirms Smooth Sumac as a mouth medicine, due to examined and tested samples of the species from the Ozark mountains, which was shown to prevent tooth decay among rural Ozark inhabitants.

Sumac Stand | Iowa Herbalist
Photo Credit Shutterstock

The old herbals don’t just stop there.  Stemming from the use of Old World Rhus coriara in Europe, its subsequent adoption by pioneers was carried over to America – and a rhapsody of Old and New World uses, European and Native, developed into a robust tradition of medicinal use.

Old herbals praise its unique potency against various afflictions, among them diarrhea, dysentery, fevers, scrofula, and weakness with too much/not enough perspiration.

Sumac is noted to help tone the uterus and prevent its prolapse, like Raspberry.  In fact, it is an all-around great Woman’s Medicine, regulating the cycle and preventing cramps through its actions on stabilizing the blood.  As a bowel medicine, the herb helps against urinary complaints as a diuretic, acting through the kidneys.  Historically, and in our present day, Sumac may be used to aid diabetes medication due to its kidney effect; Southeastern native tribes used it as their own regional analogue of more Western/Southwestern herbs like Brickelia (Brickellia spp.) or Nopal Cactus (Opuntia spp.).

A few famous herbalists of today discuss Sumacs of various species being medicines with a long history of successful use, Matthew Wood and Phyllis Light being its biggest proponents.  Phyllis Light herself learned the uses of Sumac passed down from her grandmother in Southern Appalachia, a knowledge inherited from the Creek Indians.  Wood compares the uses of Staghorn and Smooth Sumacs in his book The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, and touches on the fact that Smooth Sumac is indeed a useful remedy in cases of mild putrefaction – this could include an illness like strep throat.

Next time you are driving along the highway, jogging, or passing through those more “thickety” parts of your town – I hope you stop to take a look at Sumac, if the gorgeous plant already doesn’t grab your eye.

Sumac could be a first step into a powerful pantheon of Iowa herbs, a  plant that for many of us, could be just outside our window, waiting to yield its uses to us.

Although the stands of Sumac are widespread and numerous….please, harvest respectfully.

Sumac is an incredible healing herb, but has also long had a place in the culinary arts. Learn about the health benefits, flavors, uses, and preparations possible with sumac.


References: Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke.  The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood.  Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World by K. Kris Hirst.  Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher.  King’s American Dispensatory, 1898.  Henriette’s Herbal Homepage.  Personal Experience.

Licorice of the Woods – Sweet Cicely or Sweetroot in Herbalism

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**Disclaimer** The information in this article on sweet cicely is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Properties: Tonic, Bitter Tonic, Aromatic, Carminative, Adaptogen, Stimulating Expectorant, Demulcent, Anti-spasmodic, Immune Booster, Antimicrobial, Emmenagogue

Energetics: Damp and warming, Sweet

Parts Used: Root, sometimes leaves

Sweet Cicely Flowers | Iowa Herbalist

When first walking the woods of Iowa out by where I live, I came across swathes of forest that were completely carpeted with an interesting looking herb.

I turned to a few people I knew and asked them what it may be, describing it in detail.  One of them was an ecologist, another a biologist, and yet another a dedicated explorer of wilderness.

I was surprised that they were each baffled, having not fully noticed the plant before – as it really isn’t all that memorable or interesting to look at.

One of them suggested it was Greek Valerian, or Jacob’s Ladder, but those were not matches.  One of them even brought up Poison Hemlock: “No, no, no- definitely not that!”

A lot of time went by before thinking of the plant again, even though I continued to see it everywhere: while hiking, fishing, or gathering other herbs.  It is quite ubiquitous, but unremarkable in appearance.  Nonetheless, it learned how to catch my eye.

Then, through a series of interesting events, I stumbled upon a picture of this plant in one of my favorite plant guides.

Sweet Cicely Rain | Iowa Herbalist

Sweet Cicely was what it was called, an obscure member of the Carrot Family, Apiaceae.  There was little information on it in herbals, so I didn’t focus on it too much.

Then, I was shocked and pleased to discover that it was considered to be a very important cornerstone in Cherokee Herbal Medicine, via herbalist David Winston.

With some study I came to understand that it was also important to many other First Nations in our history as well, collectively a stomach/bowel remedy and Woman’s Medicine.  In the end, though – it was the word adaptogen that rang in my ears.

This plant is not to be confused with the Sweet Cicely of European Herbalism fame, Myrrhis odorata.  They do have some effects in common; but this low-growing plant found in damp, intact woodlands is very much native to the United States, and here in Iowa particularly.

To avoid mix-up with its cousin Myrrhis, I have opted to call it “Sweetroot” instead, and will refer to it as such throughout this article.

Sweet Cicely in Spring | Iowa Herbalist
The fuzzy leaves of sweet cicely, or sweetroot, slowly unfolding in spring.

Belonging instead to the genus Osmorhiza, the species longistylis and claytonii are quite prevalent in the Midwest, with occidentalis being the denizen root of the Rocky Mountains and the West.

As my beginning story foretells, this plant blends inconspicuously and expertly with the surrounding undergrowth.  There is hardly anything remarkable about it, nothing suspicious in its humble appearance, as it grows undistinguished and modest among its fellows.  

It’s only when you read about it, and learn to pick it out – like I did – and dig up your first plant at the root, taking a little nibble at its sweet, licorice taste, that you realize the true significance of the medicine you’ve stumbled upon.  Then, standing up and looking around at the sheer numbers of this plant surrounding you, it dawns on you exactly what wonderful prospects this plant may hold!

Smelling or taste-testing Sweetroot, in the process of its harvest, is quite important.  Some roots are medicinal, and some are not.

The most medicinal ones are those plants with roots having the strongest licorice aroma, a smell found also in some of Sweetroot’s relatives in the Carrot family.  This smell indicates the presence of anethole, a camphor that is found in other herbs like Licorice, Anise Hyssop and Basil.

Anethole spans across different plant families, but is most commonly found in the world’s favorite medicinal and culinary herbs.

The smell itself is a signal of Sweetroot’s remedy.  You can usually tell with a few sniffs of the plant, or smelling your hand after handling the root.  I personally like to take a few nibbles.

Poison Hemlock | Iowa Herbalist
Poison Hemlock, a dangerous look-alike to Sweet Cicely. Especially when both are young, they look quite a bit like one another – only Sweet Cicely (or Sweetroot) will have that strong, licorice aroma. – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

First of all, though, make absolutely, 100% sure that the plants you are looking at are indeed Sweetroot plants.  

Some people have been known to mis-identify Sweetroot with its dangerous cousin, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum).  A nibble of Poison Hemlock root will send you head-long into the beginnings of poisoning and symptoms of heart failure.

If you are not confident with your plant identification skills, bring someone with you who is experienced with this plant for harvesting –  whether that be a biologist, botanist or very experienced herbalist.

For those who are confident, Poison Hemlock leaves have a stronger resemblance to Parsley (also a relative) while Sweetroot leaves have a softer, feathery look, more similar to Angelica (yet another relative, too!).

With so many mentions to its close relatives, Sweetroot shares in some of their attributes too. Its roots remind one of the tastes of Anise, Fennel and Tarragon. Sweetroot occupies a similar herbal niche, promoting and assisting with difficult or troubled digestion. Its warming actions are perfect for cramps of the stomach, and the spasms of hiccups.

Sweet Cicely Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

A preparation of the herb would do well as an aperitif or digestif; and with its delicious taste, I can’t help but envision it as the perfect addition to an herbal beverage, swirling with cool cucumbers or a sprig of mint.

My fiance and fellow wild-food enthusiast William Lorentzen, upon taste-testing the root along with me, commented on how awesome it would be stir-fried and thrown into Indian and or Thai dishes!

As a warming ally to the digestive tract, Sweetroot’s effects also extend to female complaints.  Like another one of its close relatives, Angelica, a signature of bitter aromatics indicates a calming remedy for cramps and spasms of the uterus.

A classic bit of herbal lore holds the use of candied Angelica root, on hand, for chewing during the worst of menstrual cramps.  I have often thought that, to the same capabilities, Sweetroot may be excellent for the very same use – a candied root would be quite scrumptious.

Finnish Herbalist Henriette Kress talks about keeping candied Angelica roots in her purse for chewing at the onset of “moon sickness,” in the first installment of her book, Practical Herbs.  

American Indian women from various tribes were apparently acquainted with its ability to ease difficult menses.  The Chippewa particularly were cited to use a hot decoction of the root for bringing on delayed periods.

In fact, we certainly have Native American tribes to thank for the knowledge of its use at all, even though it is not one of the most recognized herbs today.

Predominantly Midwestern nations, who would have had access to the species Osmorhiza longistylis and claytonii, are mentioned as pioneering Sweetroot’s use as both a stomach and female remedy, but also as a “woundwort.”

Among these are the Omaha, Meskwaki, and Ojibway peoples, but doubtless there are many more.

Wild Sweet Cicely | Iowa Herbalist

Through David Winston, practitioner of Cherokee Herbal Medicine, we have knowledge of its use by the Cherokee Indians.  Thanks to him and Cherokee folk medicine people, a bit of recognition for the plant is slowly entering the consciousness of mainstream herbalism, and it’s about time!

Winston says the root was, and still is, used to strengthen the weak and those with “depleted life force,” helping the frail put on weight.  The root was decocted and drank as a tea, most likely.

In Matthew Wood’s classification of herbs, this plant would likely to be designated a Bear Medicine for the very reasons of being nutritive, sweet, tasty, and restoring strength.

But what is probably of greatest interest to herbalists is Sweetroot’s ability to fulfill the role of an adaptogen- because it is an adaptogen!

Strengthening and toning the body is only one thing it does.  But Cherokee herbalism would have it that it is also tonifying to the lungs and mucus membranes, replenishing what is called “deficient lung qui” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and improving our overall abilities to cope with illnesses, stress, and other undesirable changes.

Having the plant handy going into the winter and cold/flu season is another facet of its use.  It can be categorized with other herbs like Ginseng, Reishi mushroom and Schizandra for having similar effects to some extent.

Young Sweet Cicely | Iowa Herbalist

Winston goes so far as to say, with confidence, that one could replace the use of both Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) with Sweetroot in their herbal practice.  Sweetroot was actually compared strongly to Licorice, having similar flavor, adaptogenic qualities, and effects suited to colds, coughs and sore throats.

That, to me, isn’t even the most intriguing part of discovering Sweetroot’s capabilities as an adaptogen.

Due to its availability, as well as comparing it to other adaptogens – and being an herbalist who prefers the forage/use of wild native herbs – Sweetroot is perfect for someone who wants to keep their practice as ethical and sustainable as possible, without having to think about the welfare of the entire species. Populations of Osmorhiza, around that States, are considered federally stable.

One thinks of the examples of more widely-known adaptogens: plants which typically are known for being rare or endangered, as in the case of Ginseng; plants that are a challenge to fully cultivate and use as our own personal medicines, such as Ashwagandha or Reishi; or herbs that seem unethical or very distant, as they are sourced from other countries thousands of miles away, like Jiao-Gu-Lan.

Many famous adaptogens are of Asian origin, and the native ones that we wish to feel close to here in the Midwest are herbs that we should leave alone: that includes the wild Ginseng and Licorice we take pride in.  Of course, they can be cultivated, but experienced herbalists know firsthand that cultivation just isn’t the same.  Neither is knowing a plant strictly through a capsule or imported tincture as satisfying as knowing and working with the plant personally.

Which is why I would urge any herbalist who relies on adaptogens to get acquainted with Sweetroot, whether it be just for themselves and their families or a clinical practice.

If you wish to be an herbalist and fit seamlessly into an ecological or bioregional niche of herbalism, you’re not being practical leaning on a plant like Eleuthero to cover those bases (although Eleuthero has its own wonderful virtues).

Popular adaptogens are amazing and legendary for their effects on health – but can you form a wild relationship with the plant?  Probably not.  The best adaptogen you can form a personal rapport with, in the wild Midwest, would be Sweetroot.

If you live in the Midwest or Eastern United States, take a walk in damp woods near a creek or river, and you’ll probably find Sweetroot: growing with Wood Nettles, Virginia Snakeroot, Elder, even Morel mushrooms in spring.

Just like its common forest companions – there is plenty to spare.  Not something that could be said for an admirable and unequivocal adaptogen like Ginseng, even though Sweetroot is not near as strong.

All the same, it is amazing what the bond of herb and herbalist can do.  If you do choose to harvest it for yourself or others, remember always to harvest responsibly.

Sweet Cicely Tincture | Iowa Herbalist



A Modern Herbal by M. Maude Grieve.  Randall Scheiner, Ecologist.  Lisa Maas, Biologist.  David Winston, Cherokee Herbalist/CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices, James A. Duke and other editors.  Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress.

The Cedar Path – Cedar as Medicine in Iowa

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Eastern red cedar - and cedars of all kinds - have been used for health in herbalism for thousands of years. Learn more about cedar in herbalism here.

**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Properties: Anti-inflammatory, Diaphoretic, Expectorant, Astringent, Anti-microbial, Diuretic, Anti-asthmatic, Anti-fungal

Energetics: Warm, Very dry, astringent 

Parts used: Berries (female cones), branches, leaves, bark

Before I even knew what Cedars were, I loved their smell.  Nowadays, the scent of Cedar wood evokes memories of cabin stays with cousins far up in the mountains of Utah as a child, thinking that the house just smelled that good because it was a magical place, a magical time.  I remember being irrationally excited to go on those cabin retreats, not knowing why.

In my more recent years, and falling into the world of herbalism, I once brushed up against a support beam of Cedar wood in a sustainable dwelling, and it was as if the scent hit me like a lightning bolt– what was that?  Why do I feel this way?  I asked what kind of wood it was, and they told me it was Cedar.  Since then I have been almost magnetized to the scent of this tree.  It immediately calms me down, transports me to another place, and makes me leave all current worries.  I tend to go straight back to that cabin up in the mountains: covered in Pendleton blankets, sipping hot cocoa, and watching the desert with reverence.

Eastern Red Cedar Tree | Iowa Herbalist

No coincidence that Cedar has an important place in many cultures as a strong spiritual agent with a cleansing presence,  a protective plant in rituals and as medicine.   It is commonly ascribed similar properties as Sage; the needles, bark, or sap is burnt as an incense, the smoke it emits protecting and cleansing against spiritual “residue.”  Cedar can be “smudged” like sage, to purify a space, home, or person.  For me, I came to realize that this wonderful, satisfying smell may be a direct reflection of these effects, as it seems to immediately calm and sedate, smoothing over stress and uncertainty, dispelling fear and doubt.  These same effects are no doubt what drew it to be favored by Native cultures throughout the United States, and other cultures the world over that were blessed to be in the presence of this beautiful tree.

In Iowa, the Cedar we are happy to have with us is the Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana.  By all accounts it really is more of a Juniper than a Cedar, though Cedars and Junipers are actually related.  In fact, the family of plants in which the Eastern Red Cedar belongs extends to the giant Sequoia, the towering Redwood, a variety of other Cedars and Cypresses all over the world, and even the Common Juniper, Juniperus communis.  All these trees are also somewhat interchangeable when it comes to their medicinal and spiritual properties, as well.  Its use as a spiritual agent, interestingly enough, is found in different cultures, on completely different continents.

Cedar Berries Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

The uses of Eastern Red Cedar branch out into many.  They are very similar to the Old World, standard Common Juniper in that its female cones- or berries- are one of its favored usable parts, if not an attribute of the plant that really grabs the eye.  When you see the Cedar’s fragrant branches heavily-laden with these bright blue little “fruits,” it’s hard for an herbalist to think that these are NOT somehow useful!  One of the virtues of the berry is that it goes impeccably well with several mediums: salve, tincture, elixir, syrup, you name it.  What more: it tastes delicious, and mixes well with a large variety of other herbal flavors in combination, if you are crafting a blend or formula of sorts.  The twigs, leaves, branches and bark of Cedar have effects and flavor too, although they are notably more intense and astringent, having a reputation of being hard to extract; their use is important, but not as eclectic.  I would wager that the berries are more for tonic use, whereas the rest of this beautiful plant should be saved for acute situations, which I will get to later.  Berries can be picked during the fall or winter, as they last, when they “ripen” to an appetizing-looking blue.

Remember: Cedar trees tend to be dioecious (at least the Eastern Reds are).  That is, there are males and females of the species.  If it is fall or winter, and the trees you are looking at for harvesting don’t seem to have blue cones, chances are they are male.  Keep looking– you will more than likely stumble upon a female tree not far off.

In its many mediums, the berries serve as a very ideal winter medicine– all the better since they can, for the most part, be harvested all winter as the berries are available.  They are high in Ascorbic Acid, or Vitamin C, an ideal vitamin to take over the winter for immune support.  Even if you don’t have a cold, their use as a tonic will be more than welcome.  When winter illnesses take a nasty turn, Eastern Red Cedar berries work with expectorant action, helping the lungs clear out excess mucus and promote a healthy cough.  It can be useful for a dry or wet cough: it relieves that “tickle” you may feel with a scratchy, dry throat with a hoarse cough, but it also stimulates the lungs to cough more productively, and expel phlegm in less time than without it.  So here you have a medicine that stimulates the immune system, relieves a scratchy throat, improves your cough– and tastes great!  Cedar berries in syrup form are especially delightful.  Sounds like quite a valuable ally to have, if you ask me.  Wonderfully enough the Eastern Red Cedar and its scores of blue cones are certainly not in short supply, as this tree is a prolific grower all over the Midwest.

Cedar Branches | Iowa Herbalist

In the Native-Hispanic tradition, Cedars and their relatives are valued highly for the properties of their leaves, “needles,” or branches.  These hold the more potent effects of the tree, and as such, are more difficult to capture in preparations.  They can be slightly toxic.  While certainly not widely considered poisonous or dangerous, it is still good to be careful.  Be sparing when using preparations of Cedar needles or branches, even the berries, for that matter.  Cedars are very powerful diuretics.  When taken overboard, they cause kidney irritation, which feels like cramping in the abdomen– similar to a period cramp.  Even higher doses can be more dangerous.  Folks with weak kidneys, or outstanding kidney issues should avoid using the Cedar leaf.

Cedar leaves and branches are particularly a stimulating expectorant, to use when the lungs are incredibly damp, breathing is hard, and illness is acute.  Asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia are prime cases.  When taken in a hot tea, it opens up the pores and eliminates sickness very effectively when the body breaks into a sweat.  For the same reasons, Cedar’s diaphoresis is integrated into sweat rituals, as a means of bodily purification.  Its best documented historical use is among the Lakotas, when foreigner-brought cholera struck their populations.  A very notable medicine man, who later went on to become the notorious chief Red Cloud, turned to the Eastern Red Cedar and found that a hot decoction of its branches was the best cure for the plague– and saved many lives.  This herb is to be used when damp clogs the body, especially in the lungs, and must be eliminated through cough or sweat.  When taken cold, its action moves downward as a diuretic, purging that way through the kidneys– its effects in that regard are very intense, and again, this is not a remedy to be overdone.

Historically in Iowa, the use of Eastern Red Cedar was brought here by the Mesquakie people, hailing originally from Michigan but relocated to Oklahoma, before settling on their land in Iowa.  For them, the plant was a favored tonic, bringing back the weak and ill from the brink or for the invalid or convalescing.  Medicine men used the inner bark for catarrh, grinding it into a powder and inhaling it into the lungs or nasal passages.

Cedar Bark | Iowa Herbalist
Cedar bark, harvested by deer, retrieved by myself

The bark or wood is also what has been employed for Cedar’s more spiritual purposes.  The leaves and branches have been used for the same, too.  The fragrant, calming smoke when the wood burns is believed to allay nightmares, night terrors, hauntings, malevolent influences/thought forms, evil spirits, and ill-meaning wild animals.  Many native peoples in North America use the smoke to cleanse a home; in the Native-Hispanic traditions, home-cleansings are called “limpias,” and Cedar wood being favored in this way.  Again, the smoke of Cedar is used to purify the body, not just the home.

Deer love the bark, too.  On my winter walks, the trunks of the Eastern Red Cedar display hanging ribbons of tender inner bark that has obviously been stripped back by the teeth of a white-tailed deer.  I favor harvesting this bark, since it is “collateral damage”– it is also the perfect, fibrous texture and consistency for burning as an incense.  I also, loving deer so much, love the idea that the deer have helped with half the work.

I always find it interesting and thought-provoking when the spiritual and emotional effects of plants reflect their physical ones.  Just as Cedar seeks to purge our bodies of spiritual impurities, or to protect a home from negative influences, the hard reality is seen at work when Cedar is taken as medicine: whether it is expelling mucus from our lungs as a stimulating expectorant, clearing them of bacterial or viral infection; or opening up our pores in a cleansing fever to clear toxins, as invoked and adopted by sweat ceremonies.  Whether you believe in esoteric herbalism, or not, Cedar does one thing: it cleans us, in mind and body.

Now, when I take that mind-transporting whiff of Cedar smoke, I realize why I felt that way.  This beautiful tree’s magic is powerful.  If you ever need a friend in the midst of illness, or during a hard emotional time, or if you just need to get some bugs out of your system– Cedar is your herb.  If you wish for simpler times, are feeling nostalgic or just want to reminisce, no plant can summon that feeling better; taking you far up into a cabin in the mountains, surrounded by pines and firs, and blankets.  Enjoy it in a tea, your favorite elixir, a tasty syrup or perhaps in a calming incense blend.  I remember such effects when I’m winding in between the rust-colored  Eastern Red Cedars, peppered across Iowa’s tawny grasslands in winter, harvesting their little blue cones.  Each time I bring in a jar or two, I spread some of the berries in places where Cedars don’t grow– to make sure there are more trees there for us to enjoy in the future.  It’s my way of saying: “Thank you.”

As always: harvest responsibly, and respectfully.

References: Charles Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.  Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher.  Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke.  Personal Experience and Observation.

Cedars in Iowa | Iowa Herbalist

Cottonwood – Salves and Lore

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**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Properties: Anti-inflammatory, Anti-spasmodic, Anodyne, Diaphoretic, Expectorant, Astringent, Anti-microbial, Diuretic, Tonic

Energetics: Cool, dry, astringent, bitter, slightly sweet

Parts used: Bark, Leaf buds

Cottonwood Driftless | Iowa Herbalist

“…the Cottonwood suckles like a baby, suckles on the Mother Water running under the ground.  A Cottonwood will talk to the Mother Water and tell her what human beings are doing….”  

Yoeme,  Almanac of the Dead

The elegant Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) has captured the imagination of myth and folklore all over the United States.  One of my friends once declared that she didn’t think she had a “Spirit Animal”– she had a “Spirit Plant,” and it was the Cottonwood.  This tree medicine is held sacred, or at the very least important, to many American-Indian cultures.  Some folks think that the injury or felling of any Cottonwood, or negative happenings near these trees, have heavy repercussions in the Spirit World.  What happens near a Cottonwood grove, tends to stay with the Cottonwood grove.  There are some connections between the Cottonwood and the waters, and even connections to “rain magic.”  But that’s just the esoteric stuff.

The average herbalist loves Cottonwood for its sticky, resinous leaf buds that drop in springtime, which lend themselves beautifully to oils and salves for topical treatment of inflammation, pain, and soreness in muscles, joints, tendons and the like.  Those of you who have experienced a good Cottonwood salve can say it is a very cooling, soothing relief for what is greatly inflamed, coming in like a calm water to put out a nasty fire.  The origin of Cottonwood salves comes from its use by Native North American tribes, who used it also as a wash for wounds, skin afflictions, and various pains.

~Cottonwood Salve Recipe~


  • 1 cup Cottonwood Buds (this does not need to be exact)
  • 3 cups your favorite organic oil (my favorite is sunflower; safflower, olive, and canola can be ok)
  • Less than 1 cup beeswax (flakes, strips, blocks, whichever)

-Infuse your oil with the Cottonwood buds by heating oil very low on stove in a pot or pan (clean cast iron ok), placing buds in oil.  You know the infusion is happening if the oil starts to change color, and your kitchen begins smelling “resinous.”
-Once infusion is finished, wait for it to cool, then strain out infused oil into different pot or pan, making sure buds are completely removed and no bits of herb are left floating in the oil.
-Heat up oil again, on low once more.  Throw in bits of beeswax, a little bit at a time.  Start with 1 tablespoon. Wait for it to melt, stirring a bit.  At this point you can “test” the consistency of your salve by placing a spoonful of it in the freezer for a minute, where it will cool and harden.  You can then add more beeswax if you want it to be thicker.  It’s all up to you if you want a “stiff,” waxy salve or one that is more oily.
-If you add more wax, wait for that to melt, stirring that a bit.
-Once it’s all melted and you’ve tested/found a good consistency, pour your mixture into glass jars which you would like to keep your salves in.  Glass is best, I’m iffy about metal and plastic.  Set jars to cool and harden somewhere for several hours, and make sure they aren’t touched; this causes ripples and encourages cracking in the salve, if you want it to look smooth and nice.

While I am including a recipe for how to craft a very simple but effective Cottonwood salve, there is a lot more to this towering tree, which shares its ancestry with Willows, Poplars, and Aspens– and with whom it also shares some medicinal qualities.  We owe today’s widespread use and production of Aspirin to this family and other plants rich in salicylic acids, the original purveyors of the effects Aspirin is responsible for: pain-reliever and fever-reducer.  Historically, this family of plants was used even more on the fringes of traditional folk-medicine as a fever, cold, and respiratory remedy.

Cottonwoods in Winter | Iowa Herbalist

If one were to come up with a signature for Cottonwood, I would call it “guardian of the waters.”  In herbalism, a “signature” hails from the “Doctrine of Signatures,” the idea that a plant’s effects are reflected in its appearance, function, or environment.  Seeing a Cottonwood usually signifies that there is a river, creek, oasis, or subterranean water nearby.  Groundwater also tends to store up around the Cottonwood’s roots, and in the desert, seeing a Cottonwood is a sure sign you will find water.  In a way, this relates to its work as a medicine.

I could categorize it with Matthew Wood’s “Crane Medicines”, which he dubs “bringers of waters.”  I call it “Heron Medicine” since I see herons so often near these trees, flying or wading, and I feel a stronger connection to the bird myself.  Herons are in fact often known to build their “rookeries” or nests in tall Cottonwoods, near water.  Crane, or Heron, Medicines emphasize the balances between wet and dry, just as the bird wades in the balance.  They are about striking that right balance between excess moisture, and too little, or bringing in needed moisture throughout the organs of our bodies.  If this tree medicine acts as a representative of the waters of nature, it certainly works similarly in human physiology; it brings the waters in or plays an important role for water-transport in the organs, most notably the kidneys, lungs, and skin.  Indeed, Cottonwood is a sign of relieving water nearby, water to come, or a way of moving water out of the body.

I should certainly note that these effects are better documented and empirically experienced in other members of the Willow family Salicaceae, like Black Poplar (Populus balsamifera), which also goes by the name of Black Cottonwood.  Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and White Willow (Salix alba) are a few others.  But it has been found that Cottonwood can be used interchangeably with them, to an extent.

When it comes to “guarding the waters,” Cottonwood is a powerful ally to have in the expelling or modulating of water in excess or deficiency.  As a folk medicine, Cottonwood and other Willow family members were used for wet, damp respiratory afflictions.  Pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma are some examples but it may be used to help in any pulmonary condition where the phlegm is stubborn, impedes breathing, and cough is unproductive.  Considered a both stimulating and relaxing expectorant in Traditional Hispanic Herbalism, an internal dosing of the bark or buds would urge the lungs to create a thinner, more watery mucus that could be easily coughed up.  The same dose encouraged the cough reflex from the lungs.  Other Willow/Poplar trees in the California-Hispanic tradition were more favored for this use but the Cottonwood is not necessarily one you want to pass up, if it happens to be the only member of that family available to you.

Additionally, in the Hispanic tradition, it was known that Populus species, when used early enough, would inhibit bacteria growing in the lungs.  Today, studies are showing, more and more, that Populus trees including Cottonwood cause 100% cell destruction in bacteria causing both pneumonia and the flu, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilius influenzae.

Cottonwood and its cousins were once one of the most favored medicines against wild fevers.  In fact, old herbalists were confident in replacing doses of Quinine bark with the bark of the Cottonwood for malaria, as the tree is an effective diaphoretic or fever-quencher.  This is another example of Cottonwood proving to be a useful transporter of fluids, as it allows pores to open, pushing out the sweat and toxins of a fever through the skin, just as the tree in nature pulls water from under the Earth up closer to the surface.  What more, the tree was even more help to malarial conditions as a diuretic.  Old herbalists and practitioners found that while using the bark to usher out the fever of malaria, it simultaneously brought a cleansing, tonifying action to damaged kidneys, liver, and stomach– organs that are at the complete mercy of such intense fevers.

Bottles Apothecary | Iowa Herbalist


Yet there is still so much more to this tree.  It expels diarrhea, helps recovery from scurvy, and I would recommend having it on hand for periods– a few cups of Cottonwood bark tea has allayed some of my worst cramps.  It can also serve to regulate menstrual irregularities.  As a tonic, it is excellent for building up and strengthening from the kidneys and on outward.  It should be noted that Cottonwood bark should not be used if there is acute irritation or illness in the gastro-intestinal system, uterus, bladder, or prostate.

To this day, I still have my little jar of Cottonwood bark on my shelf, and I save it for only when I’ll really need it.  I’ve thought about making it into a nice salve but I’ve thought twice about it.  In Iowa, the Cottonwood– along with many other trees– is a pretty marginalized species.  I was very lucky to obtain the bark– in other ways, not so lucky.  One of the enormous, beautiful Cottonwoods took an unfortunate tumble on the property, dying from some sort of crotch-rot, or other problem.  It felt ethical harvesting the bark from a tree that was going to die anyways, but in my opinion, it is unethical to harvest bark from a living tree, especially in Iowa.  Cottonwoods are “guardians of the waters” in their own home ecosystems, not just our bodies, and their role in wildlife areas is important and unique.  Some Cottonwoods are known indicators of a habitat’s health, and some are even protective of their environments against invasive species.  Leaf buds are a different story, as most folks can harvest buds that have dropped or been shaken after high winds or a storm.  Tree bark is protective and stripping or harvesting bark from a tree creates an invitation for disease or pests.  Keep this in mind, especially in a state where people don’t think twice about removing trees to make more room for corn and soybeans.

If you wish to use Cottonwood as a medicine, I would recommend considering using the buds before the bark.  If you wish to use the bark, check around the tree or grove to see if any bark or twigs have fallen that seem fresh, which you could use.  Try harvesting bark from fallen limbs instead of from the tree itself.  In all attempts to make medicine from plants in the wild– try to think not only about how it benefits you, but how it also benefits the plant and its population.  Please, harvest responsibly and with respect!

Cottonwood Tree | Iowa HerbalistReferences: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko.  Charles Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.  The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, 1919, written by Finley Ellingwood, M.D.  Henriette’s Herbal Homepage.  Matthew Wood.  Personal Experience.