There seems to be every reason in the world to overlook Red Cedars. They are exceedingly common, grow in waste habitat, are prickly and very un-friendly to the touch, and lack the grace and symmetry of other evergreens. Although this is hardly the plant’s fault, even the name is misleading because they are not Cedars at all. They don’t even produce cones in the proper sense of the word. But, having laid all this out, I would have to counter by saying that all these “faults” are actually the admirable traits of a tough workingman’s tree. As long as Red Cedars are in your face you’d might as well acknowledge them.
This is a good time of year to do so. Nature is pulling back her troops and our outdoor walks are often devoid of animal excitement. Winter evergreens, because they remain clothed in greenery, stand out amongst their naked deciduous neighbors. What would Christmas, and the month of December, be without them? Well, it would still be Christmas no matter what, but you get my meaning.
The Red Cedars are evergreens – ugly ones to be sure, but still evergreens. In form they are ragged, lop-sided, and decidedly un-Christmas Tree like. They are not Cedars, but actually members of the Juniper clan. Scientifically they are called Juniperus virginiana and you can’t argue with SCIENCE. The root words (pun not intended) basically mean “youthful and productive.” You could argue that the name means evergreen and thus Red Cedars are the original evergreen. There would be no one to argue that point with, but so what. The other part of the scientific name means “from Virginia” which merely indicates the location where it was first described.
If you glance at the lowly junipers growing next to your front porch you’ll get a better understanding of the typical Juniper profile. The fact that red Cedars strive to be wild trees, rather than domesticated shrubs, is an admirable thing. Red Cedars do the “tree thing” quite well. The trees are slow growing and can live for hundreds of years if allowed. Their tightly grained reddish wood (thus the “Red” Cedar part) is very tough and aromatic. Its oily insect and rot-resisting nature suits it well for making cedar chests and fence posts.
Because Juniper berries are used to flavor gin, the odor of Red Cedar foliage and berries might remind some of you alcohol minded individuals of cocktail parties. If so, I would recommend shoving a clump of prickly juniper branches into your mouth. You may find it preferable to drinking a martini or a gin ‘n tonic. Since Drano is a far better substitute for either of these beverages, you needn’t destroy any Red Cedars in order to get the full effect.
Technically junipers, and therefore Red Cedars, do not have berries. They are cone-bearing. The cones, however, are very berry-like so we might be getting into a meaningless conversation on this one (that is unless you are consuming gin at the time – in which case all meaningless conversations become profound). Red Cedar cones are blue, blushed with a waxy coating, and fleshy. They pop under gentle finger pressure and contain anywhere from one to three seeds – just like berries. As wildlife feed they have minimal value although seed-eating, alcoholic tending, birds will probe for the seeds.
Only the female trees dress up for the Christmas season because only they produce cones. A blue-speckled winter Red Cedar tree has a festive holiday appearance. Both sexes can produce another ornament of sorts and this one is worth seeking. Large kidney shaped (and kidney colored) galls will begin to appear on some trees in mid-summer and will be fully grown by the time winter rolls around. These growths are hard and woody with a dimpled surface much like that of a golf ball. Caused by a fungus, the galls are one of two different expressions of something called Cedar Apple Rust.
Red Cedar and Hawthorn Trees (haw apples) are shared hosts in the life cycle of the impossibly named Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae. You’ll recognize the Red Cedar’s scientific name in the name of the fungus. Over-wintering in the Red-Cedar galls, the fungus sprouts in the springtime. Long gelatinous icicles ooze from each dimple and eventually produce airborne spores. These spores infect the leaves and fruit of hawthorns and create rusty leaf spots. The Cedars are re-infected the following summer via the spores produced on the hawthorn growths and on ad-infinitum. Neither host is truly damaged in the process.
The fascinating part of this discussion (if indeed there is any fascinating part about it) is that the Cedar Apple fungus cannot overwinter on a hawthorn. It must migrate to the safety of the Red Cedar in order to survive the season. But, it cannot sustain itself on the Cedar for very long so must continually jump ship in order to stay alive. Therefore the rust remains “youthful and productive.” And, further therefore and on ad-infinitum we have come full circle in this discussion of the youthful and productive tree from Virginia.
The Red Cedar may not be pretty, but has a pretty good story to tell to those who stop (and put down their martini glasses) to listen.