The insect-repelling power of eastern red cedar wood

By Dr. Killigan
The insect-repelling power of eastern red cedar wood

Can comfort be found in a wooden box? Are the joys of one’s heritage kept safe under lock and key? Can a wildness of heart spring forth from the creak of rusty hinges?

The cold, naked truth is that, no, nothing concrete can hold one's heartstrings, nothing tangible can blossom and bear fruit from a red wooly sweater, a crocheted doll with a lopsided smile, or other weathered items.

Yet, here I sat with such a box before me and I felt mixed waves of happiness, sorrow, and loss crashing through the depths of my soul. Dusting its coarse lid off, I recalled the foggy memories that I held of my grandparents. As a child of six or perhaps seven years old, I first played a card game with them. I remembered the red freckles on my grandmother’s arms bouncing about as tremors, causing her hands to shake as she reached for a card from the deck. My grandfather sat there, quiet and still. He was always so quiet, so still. Occasionally he reached for the white-checkered handkerchief that had been greedily stuffed in his front pocket. His nose always seemed to be dripping.

Pulling myself from the haze of these faint memories, decades ago, a jingle began to resound in my mind. It was advertising the aromatic smell, the profound beauty, and the grounded significance that cedar chests held. Cedar chests, once known as the "the gift that starts a home," were special, admired, and carried hope. I desperately wanted to recall this hope.

So, I started from the beginning. Pulling a thick binder down from my immense library, I looked for the section on the history of cedar uses. Knowing the facts in print would, I believe, give me the peace and hope that I was searching for.

During my childhood, I endured a notable amount of adversity. Like calloused knees that hide tender, flexible flesh, I had been hardened by experiences of misfortune. At the time I inherited this family heirloom—a rustic cedar chest from my grandparents—I was in my early 20s, hoping that my past, like a locked box without a key, would remain closed. In a way, this special cedar chest represented me at that time.

What made cedar wood chests popular?

In American culture, cedar wood chests historically represented what amounted to hope. They were purchased by men for their sweethearts during World War II, when—downed in their temperate temperature war uniforms of olive drab wool—these men left their loved ones and homes behind to fight for the allies. The cedar wood chests symbolized a commitment: The men promised that when they returned home, they would build a family together with their sweetheart, with whom they would live happily ever after.

Why is cedar important?

Cedar has long symbolized greatness, nobility, and strength, according to scriptures from ancient civilizations. Because of the tree’s great size, wide diameter, and long lifespan, its meaning carries incredible depth and beauty. Not only is its meaning profound, but its abundance of uses is vast.

Eastern red cedar trees appear in a row
  • Cedar is a natural non-toxic deterrent against moths and other pests, as the oil that infuses its wood is naturally insect-repelling.
  • The heartwood of red cedar contains volatile oils that will kill clothes moth larvae (when the oils are in high concentration).
  • The eastern red cedar and its essential oils have been traditionally used as a wood preservative, primarily because of its insecticidal and antimicrobial properties.
  • Cedar wood oil can be added to your mulch or topsoil to help keep insects at bay.
  • Cedar wood oil can be used to keep biting pests away during seasons when bugs are a threat though creating your own natural, essential-oil-based, bug repellent formula.
  • Cedar replaces the need and use of mothballs. Mothballs, made up of toxic chemicals, have been historically used to kill moth larvae. But, this method has dwindled in popularity as not only the smell is repulsive, but this moth deterrent is highly toxic. The chemicals contained within mothballs slowly vaporize, not only killing moth larvae but also causing the potential for a plethora of health issues for both you and your pet.
  • The wood from the eastern red cedar is exceptionally aromatic. It possesses an almost floral scent, which is entirely enjoyable to experience. Properly sealed, it can retain its powerful odor for longer than a century, repelling moths and other pests—one reason for its resounding popularity in paneling for closets and lining storage chests.

What are the different cedar tree types?

While there are only four types of true cedars—Cedrus atlantica, Cedrus brevifolia, Cedrus deodara, and Cedrus libani, all of which grow only in the Mediterranean regions of the world—there are a variety of other species labeled cedar. This includes both the western and eastern red cedar, which respectively grow on the western and eastern regions of the United States.

What’s so unique about eastern red cedar?

The eastern red cedar is indeed a unique tree, its use having two profound effects on pests: it both prevents the establishment of pest populations and aids in their control.

In addition to this quality, here are other benefits of the Juniperus virginana:

  • The eastern red cedar, known as the most fragrant of the cedars, is highly aromatic, emitting a pungent, sweet, citrus-like scent. This emitted scent is actually hydrocarbons (phenols) and acids and are what keep the bugs at bay—acting as natural pesticides. As pests experience exposure, two things happen: the toxic phenols are absorbed through the respiratory tract and enter the pest’s blood stream, fatally damaging the liver, and the released acids cause damage to the pest’s lungs and trachea.
  • Due to the cedar’s significant repelling properties, it naturally deters a number of insects. This list includes adult clothing moths, clothing moth larvae, silverfish, termites, carpet beetles, and cockroaches, to name a few.
  • The level of repellency of the eastern red cedar increases as exposure is heightened. The greater the measure of cedar that a pest comes into contact with, the greater the degree of repellency.
  • Cedar oil vapors indicate both a retardation in the development of clothing moths (in all live stages) and the ability to completely eliminate (aka kill) these pests.
  • Because of its many uses, the eastern red cedar tree was known as a sacred tree by many indigenous peoples in North America. Not only has it historically been used to repel moths, keep bees and wasps away, deter termites from playgrounds (and other structures made of wood, including homes), and ward off insects from one’s garden (when used as chips), but it has also been used as medicine to cure ailments such as colds, measles, worms, and rheumatism. Other uses of the eastern red cedar include providing a source for red dye (from its heartwood), as well as a source for fence posts—due to its resistance to decay and longevity in the soil—and for hope chests. Eastern red cedar trees can also be used as both a windbreak tree (when planted in staggering rows) and for erosion control—due to its fibrous root system.

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3 comments
  • I adore the look and smell of cedar so to hear more about the back story and many, many uses it has, especially in regards to fighting pesky insects, I am a complete fan!

    Elyse on
  • It all makes sense now why saunas are commonly made with cedar wood. It’s antimicrobial!

    Mitch on
  • Had no idea how many great uses eastern red cedar has for the household!

    Jason on

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