Friends of the Wild Flower Garden

Plants in the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

Cedars and Spruces - Lifesaving Trees

by Gary Bebeau

White Cedars in the Garden
Northern White Cedars in the Wetland at Eloise Butler.

We have in the Wildflower Garden two trees historically significant in the discovery of cause and cure of scurvy. The first is the Northern White Cedar, Thuja occidentals, also known as the Arborvitae, or Tree of Life.

White Cedar is considered the first native North American tree to be introduced into Europe. The French explorers under Cartier first found it in Canada and due to the miraculous properties of the tree (as explained below), he sent plants back to France where by late 1536 it was growing in Paris in the royal garden of Fontainebleau. It reached Britain in 1566 where it grows well on the Western Coastal hills. The twigs are known to have been used to produce a tea for the treatment of constipation and headache. Tea prepared with the leafy twigs and the bark is high in vitamin C and such tea saved the crew of explorer Jacques Cartier from scurvy in February 1536. His 3 ships and 110 men, having sailed from St. Malo to Stadacona, (The present site of Quebec) were ice-bound during the winter of 1535-36 while trying to find a northwest passage to China. At the time scurvy was not diagnosed.

Jacques Cartier
Jacques Cartier

Cartier wrote: “The said unknown sickness began to spread itself amongst us after the strangest sort that ever was either heard or seen, insomuch as some did lose all their strength, and could not stand on their feet, then did their legs swell, their sinews shrink as any coal. Others also had all their skins spotted with spots of blood of a purple color; then did it ascent up to their ankles, knees, thighs, shoulders, arms and neck; their mouths became stinking, their gums so rotten that all the flesh did fall off, even to the roots of the teeth, which did also fall out.” (1)

Cartier wrote that the tea provided an almost instant cure. The Indians called the tree Ameda or Hanneda, and it is thought that this was undoubtedly the Northern White Cedar and from this comes the Latin name Arborvitae - the tree of life.

The tea, while good for curing scurvy and rheumatism, was not considered palatable by some. Thoreau wrote: "This night we had a dish of arbor-vitae, or cedar-tea, which the lumberer sometimes uses when other herbs fail, but I had no wish to repeat the experiment. It had too medicinal a taste for my palate.” (2)

black spruce
A young Black Spruce

The leaves and twigs produce a camphor-like oil, which may be useful as a salve but is toxic if taken internally without dilution and reduced to small quantities. The Minnesota Chippewa used the leaves along with other ingredients to make a cough syrup. (3)

Another northern tree which provided a way to forestall scurvy was the Black Spruce, Picea mariana.

James Cook
Captain James Cook

In the 1750s the not-yet famous James Cook spent time as a ship's master on the northern coast of North America and became acquainted with the medicinally qualities of the Black Spruce. Cook would establish a reputation as a ship's captain who understood the effects of scurvy and what to do about it - long before the Royal Navy adopted the proper procedures. Cook knew that freshly made 'spruce beer' was a remedy and preventative for scurvy and whenever he could gather fresh young shoots, he had a brew made. Water, molasses and yeast were needed for the process. (1) (Gurney provides a recipe.) It apparently was better tasting than the tea made from Northern White Cedar as Spruce Beer was still made late into the 19th century. (4)

Cook made three circum-navigations of the globe between 1768 and 1779. Spruce Beer in mentioned in his log numerous times. Here are two:

At New Zeland: Thursday, 13th February 1777: Scurvy grass and Portable soup were boiled with Pease and Wheat for both ships companys every [day] during our whole stay and they had spruce beer for their drink; so that if any of them had contracted any seeds of the Scurvy these articles soon removed it.

In the Bering Sea: [finding berries ashore] Saturday, 3rd October 1778: ....in order that we might benefit as much as possible from them one third of the people by turns, had leave to go and pick them and besides a good quantity were procured from the Natives; so that if there was any seeds of the Scurvey [sic] in either ship, these berries and Spruce beer which they had to drink every other day, effectually removed it. (5)

(1) Gurney, Alan, Below the Convergence: Voyages Toward Antartica 1699-1839, 1997.
(2) Thoreau, Henry David, The Maine Woods, 1864
(3) Densmore, Frances–  How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Note: The contents of this book were originally published in the Forty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1926-1927)–   Dover –  1973
(4) Fernald, Merritt L. & Alfred C. Kinsey–   Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America   Harper & Row–  1958
(5)The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific, A. Grenfell Price, Editor. Dover Books.