Herb: Pencil Cedar

Latin name: Juniperus virginiana

Family: Cupressaceae (Cypress Family)

Medicinal use of Pencil Cedar:

Pencil cedar leaves were much used medicinally by the native N. American Indians, and also in folk medicine by the white settlers, especially to treat chest complaints and skin problems such as venereal warts and other excrescences. The leaves are anthelmintic, diuretic, rubefacient and stimulant. A decoction has been used in the treatment of coughs and colds, general weakness and as a medicine for convalescents. The berries are anthelmintic, diaphoretic, emmenagogue and mildly antiseptic. They have been chewed as a treatment for mouth ulcers or made into a tea to treat colds, rheumatism, worms etc. The fresh young twigs are used as a diuretic. An infusion has been used both internally and as a steam bath in the treatment of rheumatism. The essential oil from the wood is an abortifacient, in some cases it has caused vomiting, convulsions, coma and death. The plant is said to contain the anticancer compound podophyllotoxin. The essential oil from the berries is used in aromatherapy. Its keyword is "Composing".

Description of the plant:


20 m
(66 feet)

to May


Habitat of the herb:

Dry, rarely wet, open woods and rock slopes, often on limestone. Infertile soils and old pastures.

Edible parts of Pencil Cedar:

Fruit - raw or cooked. A sweetish resinous flesh. They can be crushed and used as a flavouring in soups and stews. The cones are about 5mm in diameter. About 10mm according to another report. A tea is made from the fruit. It is not very nice. It is made from the young branchlets and the fruit according to one report.

Other uses of the herb:

An essential oil is obtained from the wood. Composed of cedar camphor or cedrol, it is used in soaps, as an insecticide and moth repellent, a deodorant, in polishes, perfumery etc. Chips of the wood have been used as moth repellents. The leaves are used as an incense and are also either burnt or crushed and then scattered around as an insect repellent. The crushed bark can be used as a soft base in cradles. The bark has also been cut into strips and used to make mats. The red inner bark is a source of a red dye. The bark of the tree is useful as tinder in starting fires Boy Scout style. Some cultivars of this tree are suitable for ground cover when spaced about 90cm apart each way. "Tripartita" and "Chamberlaynii" have been recommended. A fairly wind resistant tree, it can be grown as part of a shelterbelt planting. Wood - very durable, light, brittle, soft, easily worked, very fragrant, insect-resistant. The wood does not shrink much on drying and weighs 30lb per cubic foot. The reddish wood is highly prized for cabinet making, it is also used for fencing, the casing of lead pencils etc.

Propagation of Pencil Cedar:

The seed requires a period of cold stratification. The seed has a hard seedcoat and can be very slow to germinate, requiring a cold period followed by a warm period and then another cold spell, each of 2 - 3 months duration. Soaking the seed for 3 - 6 seconds in boiling water may speed up the germination process. The seed is best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. Some might germinate in the following spring, though most will take another year. Another possibility is to harvest the seed "green" (when the embryo has fully formed but before the seedcoat has hardened). The seedlings can be potted up into individual pots when they are large enough to handle. Grow on in pots until large enough, then plant out in early summer. When stored dry, the seed can remain viable for several years. Cuttings of mature wood, 5 - 10cm with a heel, September/October in a cold frame. Plant out in the following autumn. Layering in September/October. Takes 12 months.

Cultivation of the herb:

Dry, rarely wet, open woods and rock slopes, often on limestone. Infertile soils and old pastures.

Known hazards of Juniperus virginiana:

All parts of the plant might be toxic.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.