Eastern Redcedar: A Pioneer Species

One can tell a lot about the past history of an area by the trees that are both alive and dead. One location where I hunt each fall is near a large river. Here, the soils are deep, rich and loamy. Large trees consisting of black walnut, shagbark hickory, red oak, white ash, sugar and red maple, and American elm dominate the overstory. But this was not always the case, and on the forest floor are clues as to what this area was like not too long ago. Beneath the large trees an old stone wall runs through the middle of the forest and the bark of dead cedar trees can be seen lying on the ground next to it. The presence of the two reveals much about the area’s history: the stone wall indicates an agricultural past, while the cedar indicates its abandonment.

Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) is not really a cedar; it is actually a juniper. It is usually found pioneering abandoned farm fields where it has access to plenty of sunlight. Eastern redcedar is sometimes called a heliophyte or sun-plant. It likes its space and does not want to be crowded by others. I grew up in Gardiner, Ulster County, where there were (and are) plenty of abandoned farm fields. For this reason, Eastern redcedar is a common tree there ― it’s everywhere ― and should probably be named the “official town tree.” 

This tree is not only found in Gardiner but is the most widespread conifer (needle-leaf) tree in the eastern United States. It grows east of the Rocky Mountains from North Dakota to southern Maine, south into Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas. It is also the most drought-resistant conifer and can grow in poor soils. It does prefer deep, rich soils, however, but is usually outcompeted by shade-tolerant trees species such as the ones that now occupy the area where I hunt. When it is not being shaded out by vigorously growing hardwoods, it can live up to 200 or 300 years even though it grows only 25 to 50 feet tall and approximately 16 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH).

Its leaf comes in two forms: scales and needles. Both are dark bluish-green in summer and can appear bronze, coppery, or slightly purplish in late autumn and winter. Foliage is usually the densest on the tree’s outer portions where light is most abundant, and the tree is usually columnar to pyramidal. The pyramidal shape allows the lowest branches access to the most sun.

Botanists find redcedar’s reproductive structures both fascinating and controversial. Its flowers are usually found on separate trees (dioecious). Males are yellowish and females are violet. When fertilized they produce fleshy fruits that appear more like berries than cones. Berries are found only on broadleaf trees, while conifers bear cones. However, the actual covering is made of fused cone scales that are gray or bluish-green in color and approximately 1/4-inch in diameter. In this way, redcedar is something like a crossover species from conifer to broadleaf tree.

The bark is also interesting: thin, reddish-brown, and it peels in long strands; it is extremely dry and flammable. Because redcedar’s foliage is also highly flammable, this combination makes the tree very susceptible to fire. Although the individual tree may perish in a wildfire, this may be one way in which the redcedar species perpetuates habitat conditions that sustain growing space for its progeny. By providing fuel for fire, conditions offering full sunlight are ensured.

In every tree there is a use and redcedar has many. The sites it pioneers and establishes itself in were usually cleared for agriculture in the past. Agriculture that involves heavy livestock use from cows, sheep and goats can compact and erode soil from overgrazing. Luckily, redcedar mitigates this situation by enriching the soil; its foliage is packed with calcium. When it falls to the ground, earthworms feed on the material and in turn help churn the soil, adding porosity and organic matter back to the soil. When enough nutrients have built up over time, other shade-tolerant plant species can then germinate in the understory and establish a new forest. This cycle of succession assumes that the regenerating seedlings will not be browsed by large herbivores such as white-tailed deer. In Gardiner, a bare understory from deer browsing, under cedar trees, is a familiar and common site.

Eastern redcedar not only enriches the soil but also wildlife habitat. Over 70 different types of songbirds use it for cover and to feed upon its berries. In exchange, redcedar uses the birds to spread its seed. For this reason, redcedar is often found growing under power lines or near stone walls where birds perch upon shade trees and hide in brush. The aforementioned dead cedar along the stone wall near my hunting location had most likely germinated from a bird in a shade tree years ago when the area had been recently abandoned from a farm. Grouse, raccoon, skunk, opossum, black bear, meadow mice, quail, pheasant, turkey and deer use the tree for food and cover. When winter snow accumulates five or more inches, deer, especially, will use redcedar stands for shelter from the wind. Deer also browse the foliage whenever they can reach it, especially when other food sources are not readily accessible, such as after a deep snow. I have observed deer standing on their hind legs to reach the foliage.

In addition to wildlife, humans have also had a history with redcedar. Native Americans boiled the leaves and berries and used the liquid to treat a wide array of respiratory ailments, aches and pains. Its berries contain a property that closely resembles natural turpentine. Infusions made from the berries have been said to create potent diuretics and can be used to cleanse the kidneys and urinary tract. Redcedar’s turpentine quality also makes it effective for treating gastrointestinal ailments and other digestive ailments. All conifer needles are rich in vitamin C, as is redcedar. Cedrol was oil distilled from leaves, twigs, and the heartwood was used to heal wounds and to make perfumes and polishes.

The berries are not only medicinal but can also be used in the culinary realm. The berry is dried and crushed and used in flavoring meats, soups or sauces. Very few berries are needed because they are so pungent.

Redcedar’s wood had many uses. In the early 20th century almost all pencils were made from redcedar until the supply of trees was exhausted. Afterwards, pencil manufacturers turned to the western U.S. where incense cedar could be used instead. However, the wood itself is extremely versatile. It is light, takes a nail well, shrinks little, can be glued easily, is straight-grained (where no knots exist), and the heartwood is aromatic. For this reason, it has been used to make boxes, house and barn sills, milking pails and washtubs. Its heartwood is extremely rot-resistant and makes good fence posts. Native Americans took advantage of this characteristic by hollowing it out and making canoes. In some areas, the tree is harvested for Christmas trees because of its compact foliage and a conical shape.

Eastern redcedar has not always been thought of fondly. There is a fungus or rust that deforms the fruit and foliage of apple, hawthorn and quince; however, the rust needs two hosts to complete its life cycle. Cedar is its most common alternate host and the rust overwinters in it. In spring the spores from the rust spread from 2-inch galls in search of another host. Cedar is slightly disfigured from the rust, but the fruit trees are greatly harmed. In the early 20th century, the state of Virginia passed a law in which all redcedar trees could be killed near apple orchards. In order to prevent cedar-apple rust from occurring, one can remove cedars from within a mile of apple trees, spray fungicides to both the cedar and apple trees, or remove the galls from cedar in the wintertime. In places like the Town of Gardiner, removing cedar would most likely be unfeasible due to their abundance. There are rust-resistant cedar and apple trees that can be planted instead. The Delicious apple cultivars are said to be rust-resistant.

Despite the problem of cedar rust, eastern redcedar benefits humans and wildlife, and contributes to improving site conditions as a pioneer in abandoned pasture land. If you want to propagate this species by planting it make sure it has plenty of sunlight. Avoid planting in flooded sites and near apple trees. And if you seek shelter from surrounding winds, planting cedar in a windbreak is a great idea.

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