Herb: American Arbor-Vitae

Latin name: Thuja occidentalis

Family: Cupressaceae (Cypress Family)

Medicinal use of American Arbor-Vitae:

American arbor-vitae was much used by many native North American Indian tribes as a medicine to treat fevers, coughs, headaches, swollen hands and rheumatic problems. The plant has an established antiviral activity and is most commonly used in modern herbalism to treat warts and polyps, being prescribed both internally and externally for these conditions. The plant can be used to induce menstruation and so should not be prescribed for pregnant women. The recently dried leafy young twigs are alterative, anthelmintic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, aromatic, astringent, diaphoretic, diuretic and emmenagogue. The plant is being used internally in the treatment of cancer, especially cancer of the uterus. A tea made from the leaves is used in the treatment for bronchitis and other respiratory problems, colds, headaches and as a cough syrup. The plants diuretic properties make it useful in treating acute cystitis and bed-wetting in children. The leaves are used in steam baths in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis, colds etc. Externally, the leaves are used as a wash for swollen feet and burns. Extracts of the leaves can be painted on painful joints or muscles as a counter0irritant, improving local blood supply and thus facilitating the removal of toxins, easing pain and stiffness. A tincture of the leaves has been used in the treatment of warts, piles, bed sores and fungal infections. The leaves and young twigs can be harvested as required and used fresh or dried. "Oil of white cedar", obtained from the leaves, is an essential oil that is antiseptic, expectorant and rubefacient. It is used internally to promote menstruation and relieve rheumatism. This volatile oil is toxic and poisoning from overdoses has occurred, it should only be used under the supervision of a qualified practitioner and should not be prescribed for pregnant women. The oil also stimulates the heart and causes convulsions in high doses. A tea of the inner bark is used to promote menstruation and in the treatment of consumption and coughs. A homeopathic remedy is made from the leaves and twigs, gathered when the tree is flowering. It is used in the household as a treatment against warts, but also has a range of other applications that should only be prescribed by a competent homeopath.

Description of the plant:


15 m
(49 feet)

to May


Habitat of the herb:

Swamps and cool rocky banks of streams, forming dense almost impenetrable forests. Also found on rocky soils. Plants are usually found on neutral to alkaline limestone soils.

Edible parts of American Arbor-Vitae:

Pith of young shoots - cooked. It can be added to soups. Pleasantly sweet, the pith was used as the basis of the soup according to one report. Inner bark - cooked. It is only used in times of emergency or scarcity. The inner bark can be dried and ground into a powder, then used with wheat or other cereals in making bread, biscuits etc. The leafy branchlets are used as a tea substitute but are probably best avoided by pregnant women. An aromatic flavour. Another report says that the foliage and bark are used, the resulting tea is a good source of vitamin C.

Other uses of the herb:

Tolerant of regular trimming, though not into the old wood, it can be grown as a hedge. The fresh branches are used as besoms. Their aromatic smell serves to deodorize the house whilst sweeping. The leaves have been kept in the clothes cupboard as a perfume, incense and insect repellent. The leaves and stems have been used as an incense. An essential oil is obtained from the leaves and branches, it is used in perfumery and in medicines. It is poisonous if taken internally. This essential oil also has insect repellent properties. The tough and stringy bark has been used to weave fibre bags. The bark is a source of tannin. Wood - light, soft, not strong, brittle, coarse grained, very durable, easily worked, does not warp. It weighs 20lb per cubic foot. Used especially where contact with water cannot be avoided, for canoes, garden buildings, shingles, posts etc.

Propagation of American Arbor-Vitae:

Seed - best sown when ripe in the autumn in a cold frame. Stored seed germinates best if given a short cold stratification. It can be sown in a cold frame in late winter. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. If growing large quantities of plants, the seed can be sown in an outdoor seed bed in mid spring. Grow the plants on for two years and then plant them out into their permanent positions in late autumn or early spring. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 5 - 8cm with a heel, July/August in a shaded frame. Forms roots by the end of September but it should be overwintered in a frame. Cuttings of almost ripe wood, 5 - 10cm with a heel, September in a cold frame. Forms roots in the following summer. Plant out in autumn or spring.

Cultivation of the herb:

Swamps and cool rocky banks of streams, forming dense almost impenetrable forests. Also found on rocky soils. Plants are usually found on neutral to alkaline limestone soils.

Known hazards of Thuja occidentalis:

An essential oil from the leaves is poisonous if taken in large doses. This plant should not be used by pregnant women.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.