The Pros and Cons of the Eastern Redcedar
When is a cedar not a cedar? When it’s an eastern redcedar. The name is a misnomer. This plant is actually a juniper, as its botanical name (Juniperus virginiana) indicates. True cedars belong to the Cedrus genus and are not native to this country. Sources are inconsistent on the treatment of the common name, variously referring to it as eastern red cedar (two words), eastern redcedar (one word), eastern red-cedar (hyphenated), and red cedar, among many other names.
To say this plant has an image problem is an understatement. It has been snubbed over the years by tree aficionados, partially because it is so common. This ubiquitous native evergreen is the most widely distributed conifer in the eastern part of North America. It grows prolifically along fencerows, highways, and back roads, as well as in pastures and open fields that are not routinely mowed or maintained. The seedlings can rapidly take over a piece of land, making this tree equivalent to a “first responder” in populating abandoned properties and neglected fields. It would not be unreasonable to regard this plant as weedy and even invasive in poorly managed sites. In fact, it has been documented as a threat to prairie and scrubland ecosystems in states such as Oklahoma and Kansas.
Another problem with the eastern redcedar is its role as an alternate host for cedar-apple rust, a Gymnosporangium pathogen that is destructive to pome fruit trees such as apple, pear, and quince. By the way, pome fruits are members of the plant family Rosaceae, sub-family pomoideae.
Despite the negatives just cited, the eastern redcedar has plenty of good qualities. It is:
• Resistant to extremes of drought, heat, and cold. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of global warming, this is a plant that can take such conditions with aplomb.
• Tolerant of a wide range of soils — poor dry soil, alkaline soil, and dry rocky outcrops, as well as wet swampy land.
• Tolerant of windy conditions, so much so that the species was planted as windbreaks to offset the dust bowl conditions of the 1930s.
• Salt tolerant, which means it can be used near roads, driveways, and sidewalks. It can tolerate brackish marshy sites in the southeastern part of Virginia and coastal sand dunes that are subject to salt spray.
• A significant source of food and shelter for wildlife. The blue fruits on the female trees are consumed by a wide variety of wildlife, including the Cedar Waxwing songbird, which is named for this tree.
• A moderate to long-lived evergreen. Some specimens have been known to live more than 500 years. Large specimens are often found in old cemeteries and other older, undisturbed properties.
Not to be confused with the western redcedar (Thuja plicata), which is native to the western U.S. and an entirely different species, the eastern redcedar is native to the eastern half of the United States. Hardy in USDA zones 2 – 9, it is widely distributed from Canada to Florida and west to Texas.
Below ground, an eastern redcedar seedling initially has a penetrating taproot. But as the plant ages, it develops an extensive shallow, fibrous root system enabling it to persist on outcrops and shallow soils. Above ground, the tree grows 1’ to 2’ per year on a single trunk. It matures at about 40’ to 50’ tall and 8’ to 20’ wide, becoming rounder with age. Very old specimens are capable of growing 80’ or more feet tall and 30’ or more feet wide. The national champion eastern redcedar, located in the Lone Hill Methodist Church Cemetery in Coffee County, Georgia, is 57’ tall with a 75’ wide crown spread.
Eastern redcedars are dioecious, which means that male and female trees are separate plants. It’s easy to tell the difference between the two. While both bloom in late winter, female eastern redcedars produce green flowers and the males produce yellow flowers. The female trees bear small (quarter-inch), fleshy, berry-like cones that appear in spring and mature in the fall. The “berries” are generally blue with a whitish bloom, giving them a gray-blue appearance, and contain 1 to 4 seeds each. The male trees bear brown, pollen-bearing cones on the branch tips. Their pollen is dispersed by the wind.
The fragrant, scale-like foliage is sticky to the touch and can be coarse or fine-cut. It varies in color from gray or blue-green to dark green and tends to “bronze” In winter.
TIMBER VALUE OF EASTERN REDCEDAR
First observed at Roanoke Island, Virginia in 1564, and described by the early colonists as “the tallest and reddest cedars in the world,” the eastern redcedar quickly became prized for building purposes. Finding the heartwood to be rot-resistant, the colonists used it to construct furniture, rail fences, poles, coffins, and log cabins. It is famously known for its fragrant oil, which is a natural insect repellant. Because the scent repels moths, the aromatic wood has been used for centuries in the construction of chests, closets, and wardrobes to protect woolen clothing. Redcedar sawdust or wood chips may also be used in kennel bedding to repel fleas and minimize odors.
Prior to 1940, pencils were made almost entirely from cedar but are now made from cheaper wood sources or synthetic materials.
In the past, eastern redcedars were commonly used as Christmas trees. While still used in parts of the south, the species is not extensively grown for this purpose anymore, possibly because it may be slower growing than other commercially grown evergreens. When used for decorations, it gives off a strongly scented perfume, making a house smell wonderfully festive.
VALUE FOR WILDLIFE
The dense branches of the eastern redcedar provide important refuge and shelter for song birds and game birds, such as quails, bobwhites, ruffed grouse, pheasants, and turkeys. Butterflies and small mammals also benefit from the cover this tree provides. The soft, silvery bark peels off in long, flexible strips which squirrels and other small mammals use in their nest materials. The berries are an important source of food for more than 50 bird species as well as a variety of mammal species, including rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, and coyotes. The twigs and foliage are often eaten by hoofed browsers, such as mule deer and whitetail deer.
Juniper berries, which are used to flavor gin, are purported to come from this species but, in fact, come from a related species, Juniperus communis. American Indians did make a tea from the twigs as a remedy for sore throats and coughs but the berries themselves are believed to be mildly toxic.
The cultural requirements for this tree seem to run counter to what most plants prefer. This tree can grow under conditions that would cause other species to crash and burn. While it can tolerate just about any growing conditions, other than full shade, it does best in deep, moist, well-drained alluvial soil with a pH value ranging from 4.7 to 7.8 and full sun to part shade.
Eastern redcedar is easily propagated by seed. In fact, birds and small mammals eat the berries and then “disperse” the seeds along fence lines, telephone lines, or other perching sites. Cultivars, however, need to be propagated from stem cuttings in order to get a clone of the parent plant.
The eastern redcedar should be planted a minimum of 500’ away from apple trees. As previously mentioned, it is an alternative host for cedar-apple rust, a fungal disease that causes serious leaf and fruit spot damage on apple trees. The disease has a minor effect on the eastern redcedar itself. Galls containing the fungal spores appear on twigs in early April as tiny dimpled growths, ranging in size from 0.375” to more than 1” in diameter. Warm spring rains trigger the galls to produce gelatinous, orange, starfish-like protrusions called telial horns. The telial horns dry up and fall off with the arrival of dry weather but, by then, the rust spores will have floated away. The disease can be prevented from spreading to apple trees by spraying the galls in early April with a suitable fungicide.
Eastern redcedars are relatively free of serious pest and disease problems. They are, however, susceptible to bagworms, which should be picked off and destroyed before the eggs hatch. Don’t put the bagworms in the compost. The eggs can live in the compost and hatch out later. Seal them in a plastic bag and put them in the trash or place them in a pail of soapy water so that they drown.
EASTERN REDCEDAR SELECTIONS
A number of eastern redcedar cultivars have been bred to capture some of the more desirable aspects of the species. Many of the cultivars may be more suitable in modern landscapes than the straight species. Available in various shades of green or gray, the cultivars can be tall and narrow or short and spreading and several shapes in between. Just a few of the 34 cultivars listed in Michael A. Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants include:
• ‘Burkii’, a non-flowering male cultivar with a narrow, pyramidal shape ranging in height from 10’ to 15’ with a spread of 4’ to 10’. Although this cultivar has good resistance to the cedar-apple rust pathogen, it is best not to plant it near apple trees.
• ‘Emerald Sentinel’, a female eastern redcedar cultivar that produces abundant fruits. It has a narrow, conical-shaped form and grows about 25’ tall and 8’ wide. This cultivar generally retains its dark green color throughout the winter months. In 1997, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society named this selection as a “Gold Medal” plant. Described as one of the toughest plants available, ‘Emerald Sentinel’ is tolerant of extreme climatic and soil conditions.
• ‘Blue Arrow’, a small, upright, non-flowering cultivar with attractive blue-green foliage. This narrow, columnar tree only grows 15’ tall by 2’ wide, making it an excellent choice as a vertical element in a mixed border, a featured tree in a small garden, or as a hedge. Its shorter size also makes it a good choice under power lines.
• ‘Canaertii’, a conical female tree form with dark green foliage that takes on a brownish cast in the winter. This cultivar produces a heavy fruit set. It grows 30’ tall and 8’ to 15’ wide. Its habit becomes looser and more open with age.
• ‘Taylor’, a densely branched, columnar cultivar that typically grows 15’ to 20’ tall but only 3’ to 4’ wide. In higher elevations and dry sites, this cultivar develops more leaf wax, giving the foliage a silvery-blue color that stays attractive throughout the growing season. This cultivar has a formal look to it, similar to that of an Italian Cypress. The Missouri Botanical Garden selected this cultivar as a Plant of Merit for its outstanding quality and dependable performance. To quality for this honor, the plant needed to be easy to grow and maintain as well as have outstanding ornamental value.
• ‘Grey Owl’, a broad, slow-growing shrub form with finely textured silvery gray foliage. This female form produces large amounts of berries on a compact, wide-spreading shrub that grows 3‘ tall and 6’ wide. This cultivar has good resistance to cedar apple rust.
• ‘Pendula’, a good specimen tree, which grows to 40’ tall and 15’ to 25’ wide. The branch tips droop, giving the tree a weeping habit. This female form features abundant blue, fleshy cones.
HOW TO USE EASTERN REDCEDAR IN THE LANDSCAPE
Use eastern redcedar as a specimen plant or in groups. Use it planted as a hedge, a border, a screen, or as a windbreak. It can even be clipped into a topiary form. Some of the smaller forms may be planted in large pots for display purposes or in a mixed shrub border. This species may be used in large rain gardens or on slopes to help stabilize soil.
On the one hand, eastern redcedar is a native tree with many positive attributes that make it a desirable woody plant in the modern landscape. On the other hand, this plant can potentially have a negative impact in some ecosystems if it is not managed well. And therein lies the dilemma. In the past, controlled fires kept the tree from populating open fields. As human populations increased and spread across the country, controlled fires ceased being a viable option. In addition, many properties are no longer aggressively managed, resulting in conditions that are more ideal for the spread of this tree than in the past. As a minimum, the eastern redcedar can be a nuisance tree, particularly in open fields and abandoned properties where young seedlings are not regularly mowed or dug out. Worst case, it has the capacity to negatively impact certain ecosystems by crowding out other species. Those conditions notwithstanding, the eastern redcedar has three significant advantages going for it. It is able to withstand adverse growing conditions that many other tree species cannot tolerate. The rot-resistant heartwood makes it a very valuable timber tree. It is an important source of food and shelter for a wide variety of wildlife species. For these reasons alone, this species deserves a place in the landscape. In a controlled environment and in the right setting, it is a landscape asset worth having.
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Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Sixth Edition (Dirr, Michael A., 2009)
Native Plants of the Southeast (Mellichamp, Larry. 2014)
“For the Birds, Butterflies, and Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats,” Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication HORT-59, ext.vt.eduedu/HORT-59
“Trees and Shrubs that Tolerate Saline Soils and Salt Water Draft,” VCE Publication 430-031, ext.vt.edu/430/430-031
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“Eastern redcedar,” dendro.cnre.vt.edu//factsheet (Virginia Tech Landowner Fact Sheet)
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“Juniperus virginiana,” Fire Effects Information System,(Anderson, 2003). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, www.fs.fed.us/database/feis