Discover Western Red Cedar
On the grounds of Downton Manor House grows a very old tree who reminds me of 'Tree Beard', an Ent who appears in the Lord of the Rings. He towers over the other trees, with his branches swinging low, his bark like brown plated steel. His pose and grace reflect wisdom and knowledge and when you run your hands through his scales, the most wonderful sweet aroma fills the air, making you think of pear drops. This is our 'Red Beard'.
Facts about 'Red Beard'
Scientific name: Thuja plicata
Common name: Western Red Cedar
Origin: It came to England in 1852 from the West Coast of America (Oregon)
Height: Can grow up to 70m high and can live up to 1,000 years.
Smell: Crush the leaves between your fingers to release the wonderful oils, which smell citrusy and of pineapple.
Did you know that largest known western red cedar in the world, the Quinault Lake Red Cedar; has a wood volume of 17,700 cubic feet or 500 cubic meters? It is 180.5 feet high and has a diameter that is 20 feet!
A mythical tree that gave life
In Oregon this tree was called 'the Tree of Life.' It was, and still is, held in highest regard by all northwest coast tribes for its healing and spiritual powers.
The 'Kakawaka'wakw Tribe' of British Columbia, consider it the cornerstone of their culture because of its great spiritual significance and its many uses. The wood was used to make dugout canoes, house planks, bentwood boxes, arrow-shafts, masks, and canoe paddles. Its inner bark and the long arching branches are remarkably strong, given their flexibility. This bark would be soaked in water and twisted into ropes und used for mats, nets, clothing, baskets, and fishing line. The Kwakwaka’wakw warriors also created protective armour using the bark rope before going into battle. The scaled leaves were used to treat stomach pains and diarrhoea, whilst a decoction could be used to treat colds. The leaf buds are chewed in the against toothaches and sore lungs, whilst the shredded bark was used to cauterize sores and swellings.
Legends of old
Tales say that a person could receive its strength even if standing with their back to the tree. This we have tried following the bottling run, however our results are inconclusive!
Whilst testing recipes for our Explorer’s Gin, I knew there was something missing from the botanical bill. I was able to tick off the normal citrus profiles which tied back into Explorer’s Gin, where citrus prevented scurvy amongst sailors and maritime adventurers. Whilst foraging around the gardens, looking at Linden Limes, Tulip Trees and other fauna I came across ‘Red Beard’. Most people would overlook such a tree mistaking it for Leylandii - which is poisonous - however on rubbing the scaled leaves it was clear that this was anything but and it was potentially the missing piece. It was then discovering and learning how it could be used in Explorer's Gin to show case those wonderful notes without over powering the other botanicals, to create something fragrant, floral and unique.
The more I learn about this tree the more respect I have for it. An entire culture was able to thrive by using it - it provided food, shelter, materials and allowed native Americans to venture into the ocean.
This wonderful tree has come back to Downton and it is this tree that gives Explorer's gin its unique taste. A modern twist on an revered, ancient and historical botanical.