In the Ozarks what people usually refer to as “red cedar” or “cedar” is actually a species of Juniper, Juniperus virginiana, “eastern red cedar” to be exact. It’s not uncommon to hear of the plant being used among hill doctors, although the customs and beliefs surrounding the plant often overshadow its medicinal uses. The pawpaw is another such plant that although producing an edible fruit is often avoided because of its associations with witchcraft.
The red cedar has been used as a source of wood for hundreds of years. Many quilt boxes and cabinets are made from the wood or lined with it as a deterrent for moths. Cedar essential oil contains the toxic chemical “cedrol” and should be avoided for medicinal uses, but it is a good pest deterrent. The berries can be used as a flavoring agent, and has also traditionally been used in the Ozarks as an abortifacient. It’s said that men could take the drink for “chills” but a woman couldn’t drink the tea without being “talked about.” The leaves and branches are a good fumigant and incense and can be used as a juniper substitute (not really a substitute because it’s also a juniper, but more common in the South than true Juniperus communis). The foliage contain trace amounts of antibacterial and anti-inflammatory compounds (probably the cedrol) and can be used in treatments for wounds and skin complaints (usually in the form of a salve or hydrosol wash).
Vance Randolph mentions quite a bit of cedar lore in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:
“The old-timers long ago discovered, or at least believed, that chickens which roost in cedar trees are healthy and free from mites and other parasites, so that many farmers periodically cut cedar boughs and put them in their hencoops.”
“It is very bad luck to bring cedar boughs or mistletoe into the house, except during the Christmas season.”
“Many Ozark people insist that cedar trees are poison to the tiny seed ticks which are so abundant in July and August. One often sees farmer boys take off their overalls and brush their bare legs with a cedar bough. I have tried this myself, but without any benefit whatever. And the cedar thickets or ‘brakes’ in Taney County, Missouri, are swarming with seed ticks every summer.”
“Some hillfolk plant a cedar peg, with three short prongs, in the pathway to keep witches away from a backwoods cabin. It is said that this device is particularly favored by certain primitive Christians, who regard it as representative of the Trinity. It is very bad luck to disturb such a symbol, whether one believes in witchcraft or not. Enlightened hill people may laugh at these outworn superstitions, but they are nevertheless very careful not to step on a ‘witch peg.’” (I’ve also known folks who make little cedar pegs to drive around the house as a witch deterrent).
“The transplanting of cedar trees is a bad business, and the old-timers thought that the transplanter would die as soon as the cedar’s shadow was big enough to cover a grave. I have heard of a case where a young fellow uprooted some little cedars that a ‘furriner’ wanted for his lawn, dug the holes in which they were to be planted, and then hired a very old man to set them in the holes. The old codger didn’t mind, knowing that he couldn’t live long anyhow. One good thing is that cedars are hard to transplant successfully, and most of them die before they’re big enough to shade a grave. A man told me once that the curse could be ‘throwed off’ by putting a flat stone in the bottom of the hole where the cedar is planted, but others shook their heads at this theory. I know of some boys who hired out to transplant cedars in a nursery; these young men laughed at the old superstition, but their parents were horrified and ordered them to quit the job immediately.”
“Mrs. Marion B. Pickens of Jefferson City, Missouri, editor of the ‘Missouri Magazine’, wrote me (Oct. 1, 1935) of her experience shortly after buying a country home on the Osage River, near Tuscumbia, Missouri. ‘The new place is a beautifully located farm house,’ she said. ‘We planned to move some native cedars into groupings and had great difficulty in finding someone to do the work because moving cedar trees was known to bring untoward happenings, nearly always a death to the immediate family. And these Tuscumbians cited actual cases to prove the rule. We finally found a native who was willing to risk the welfare of his family, but he had worked on the big roads out in the valley and had acquired a certain bravado or recklessness in tempting the powers that be. This is a bona fide experience.’ Mrs. Frances Mathes, of Galena, Missouri, once told me that years ago she transplanted a little cedar on the Mathes farm. Her young husband just grinned when he heard of it, but her father-in-law was almost prostrated. He urged Frances to go instantly and pull the tree up. Frances refused, and always after that the old man felt that she was destined for an early death. But the cedar tree is still flourishing, big enough to cover half a dozen graves now, while Frances Mathes outlived her husband and the whole Mathes family.”
“The relatives of a murdered man sometimes throw pawpaw seeds into the grave, on top of the coffin. It is said that this insures that the murderer will be punished. Other old-timers, in similar case, prefer to pull down the top of a little cedar tree and fasten it with a big stone. This somehow helps to catch the murderer. As soon as the man is punished, somebody must hurry out and move the stone; if the cedar is not released there’ll be another killing in the neighborhood.”