If you live east of the Mississippi River you are likely familiar with the Redcedar tree. These are the scrawny little trees that you see everywhere along the highway right-of-ways. They are pioneer trees, one of the first to populate disturbed land or unmanaged fields and pastures. In poor soils they will remain small, but in good soils they can become majestic and have outstanding structure.
The interesting thing is that they are not actually cedars. Hence the compound name, Redcedar. In the world of Taxonomy, if a plant has a compound or hyphenated name it is not truly a member of that family. Other examples are the tree Tulip-poplar, which is not a poplar but rather a member of the magnolia family, or the ground cover, Ground-pine, which is not a pine but a club moss. Redcedar is actually a member of the Juniper family, thus its scientific name of Juniperus viginiana.
Redcedar starts life as a compact seedling and grows somewhat slowly. In its early years it frequently has two types of leaves, one scale like and the other that is a sharp, painful needle.
As the tree gets older its branching becomes more open and the sharp needles are more rare and the leaves are scale like.
In the mature form the tree is impressive. It is usually symmetrical with a somewhat open crown that displays the smooth grey-tan bark that is reminiscent of the bald cypress. This is when it has completed its transition from the ugly duckling stage. Mature Redcedars can reach 90 feet in height and be approaching 2 feet in diameter and historically have been reported to be up to 120 feet tall and up to 5 feet in diameter. The current national champion is in a cemetery in Georgia and has a height of only 56 feet but its trunk diameter is 6.6 feet. Impressive.
The bark of Redcedar is one of the characteristics that I love. It is smooth, somewhat soft like a fabric, and has a loose outer layer that works well as tinder for starting fires. The bark also frequently hosts lichens, adding visual interest.
This time of year the Redcedars have their berries on full display. The berries transition from green to a sky blue over the course of the fall. Each berry takes 8 months to develop and has 2 to 3 seeds inside. They are savored by wildlife and over 50 species of birds feast on them. The classic is the Cedar Waxwing, which travel in flocks and can result in a feeding frenzy that makes a tree come to life with activity. Interestingly, it is reported that the seeds travel through the Cedar Waxwing in 12 minutes after being ingested, and the germination rate is much higher for those that have been spread by birds compared to those that have just dropped to the ground.
Juniper berries like these are used to flavor gin and if you should put one in your mouth and gently scraped the skin of the berry with your teeth you will appreciate the flavor of gin. The berries are also used for flavoring in some recipes.
As noted previously, Redcedars have the ability to survive in challenging locations and are frequently found in the barrens that have been discussed on previous posts. They are frequently with a mixture of somewhat stunted oaks in these locations.
Over the course of this fall I have seen them in such demanding spots as the top of Natural Bridge in Kentucky (behind the Virginia Pine in this photo) and on the Buzzardroost Rock out cropping in Ohio. I suspect, given the harshness of these conditions, that these trees are much older than they appear and possibly over a hundred years old.
While tolerant of many challenging conditions, Redcedar is very susceptible to fire, making prescribed burning an excellent tool to prevent the tree from taking over prairie or open woodlands. The compact structure of young trees, with branches close to the ground, allows fire to rage up the entire tree killing it.
The historic use of Redcedar is interesting. It was named by the first colonists on the Atlantic seaboard due to its similarities to cedars that they were familiar with from their old country, and the hue of its heartwood, a rosy red. It was very durable and was used for structures and fencing, and its workablility allowed it to be crafted into furniture. Given its aromatic qualities it has been used for cedar closets and chests to deter insects from damaging cloth. Finally, it was used in the manufacturing of pencils and in the early 20th century Campbell County, Kentucky was the capital of Redcedar harvesting for pencil production. Over the last 80 years, as the number of large Redcedars declined, Incense Cedar, of the western USA, became the species of choice for pencil production.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns