The insect-repelling power of eastern red cedar wood

The insect-repelling power of eastern red cedar wood

Updated on July 17, 2024

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. A tangible yield cannot emerge from items like a red wooly sweater or a crocheted doll with a skewed smile.

Yet here I sat with such a box before me, 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—the red freckles on my grandmother's arms that would quiver like tremors, making her hands shake; and my grandfather, always so quiet and still, occasionally reaching for the white-checkered handkerchief greedily stuffed in his front pocket, his nose perpetually dripping.

Pulling myself from the haze of these faint memories, a jingle softly echoed in my mind, serenading the aromatic allure, the profound beauty and the grounded significance of cedar chests. Cedar chests, once known as "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 personal, immense library, I looked for the section on the history of cedar uses, knowing the facts in print would give me the peace and hope 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 represented hope. They were purchased by men for their sweethearts during World War II, when—downed in their 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 with their beloved. 

These chests not only stored personal and precious items but also became cherished heirlooms, passed down through generations as symbols of familial continuity and enduring love.

Why is cedar important?

According to scriptures from ancient civilizations, cedar has long symbolized greatness, nobility and strength. 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
  • Pest deterrent: Cedar is a natural non-toxic deterrent against moths and other pests, as the oil that infuses its wood is naturally insect-repelling.
  • Moth larvae killer: The heartwood of red cedar contains volatile oils that will kill clothes moth larvae (when the oils are in high concentration).
  • Wood preservative: The eastern red cedar and its essential oils have been traditionally used as a wood preservative, primarily because of its insecticidal and antimicrobial properties.
  • Insect repellent: Cedar wood oil can be added to your mulch or topsoil to help keep insects at bay.
  • Bug repellent formula: 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.
  • Mothball alternative: Cedar replaces the need and use of mothballs. Mothballs, made up of toxic chemicals, have been historically used to kill moth larvae. 
  • Aromatic wood: The wood from the eastern red cedar is exceptionally aromatic. It possesses an almost floral scent, which is entirely enjoyable to experience. 

Today, the legacy of cedar continues with products like Dr. Killigan’s Cedar Planks, which harness the natural insect-repelling properties of cedar to protect clothing and textiles. These planks are an eco-friendly alternative to chemical repellents, ideal for maintaining the integrity and scent of stored items. For more information on these innovative cedar products, visit Dr. Killigan's Cedar Planks.

    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 only grow 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 virginiana:

    • Natural pesticide: 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—rocarbons (phenols) and acids—are what keeps 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.
    • Natural deterrent: 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.
    • Increased repellency: 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 effects: 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.
    • Sacred tree: 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.
    • Diverse uses: 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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