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Eastern Red Cedar – the toughest Juniper There Is

September 14, 2020

Written by Dave G.

America was built on the Pioneer Spirit – the ability to persevere in difficult situations, and survive adversity, thriving in the toughest situation. If you want a plant for those situations, it makes sense to look for one with that same spirit – not a plant that hangs back until conditions have improved, and only comes along when all the comforts are available. Some plants are called ‘pioneer species’, and they are good at colonizing poor land, new areas, and places where other plants can’t yet survive. Across most of eastern North America the Easter Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, is an important pioneer species. It gets into barren grasslands and abandoned farms quickly, coping with full sun and dry soil. It grows on rocky slopes which dry fast, and where roots can’t even get down deep into cooler and damper areas. If this sounds like your garden, in country or city, then Eastern Red Cedar is a tree you are going to want.

What is Eastern Red Cedar Like?

Although called a ‘cedar’, this tree is actually a juniper – an evergreen bush with small leaves, either triangular and pointed, or flat and scale like, and small round cones. Called Juniperus virginiana, it can be found growing wild across all of eastern North America, from the Atlantic west to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. It is found from Maine to Florida, and into southern Ontario, Canada as well. It was called ‘cedar’ because of the attractive scent of the leaves and wood, reminiscent of the true cedars of Europe. It grows into an upright tree, much taller than it is broad, and wild trees can be anything from 15 feet tall to over 60 feet tall, depending on the growing conditions. These trees live to a great age – a tree over 900 years old was found in West Virginia. Beginning as a conical bush, it will in time develop a short, sturdy trunk, covered in attractive reddish-brown bark that peels and sheds, giving a rugged look to the tree that matches its toughness. Trees vary in their width, so some garden forms are especially narrow and conical – great for limited spaces. Others have a more open form, developing into trees with interesting jagged profiles that bring a lot of character to garden spaces.

Young trees have small triangular needles tightly packed along the stems, and jutting out, giving the plant a rough, bristly texture. This ‘juvenile’ foliage protects the tree from deer and rabbits, along with its aromatic smell. Older parts of the plant have ‘adult’ foliage. These are tiny, scale-like leaves that grow flat on the stems, making a smooth stem that is softer to the touch and has an almost coral-like look. Foliage color varies from bright green to bluish, so you can grow a tree with the leaf coloring you find most attractive. Most green forms grown in gardens hold their green color through winter – a big plus.

Eastern Red Cedar has Blue Berries

Like some other trees – holly bushes for example – Eastern Red Cedar has male flowers and female flowers on separate trees. The ‘flowers’ of these conifer trees are called cones, and male cones are tiny and very inconspicuous. The wind carries their pollen to female trees, whose flowers are also small when young. Pollen is released in those weeks when winter turns to spring, and it should be mentioned that this tree can trigger allergies in sensitive individuals, who may not want to plant a screen of male trees. Female trees of course don’t release any pollen, but when they receive it (and perhaps even if they don’t) they develop bunches of round cones, about ¼ inch across, in clusters. These ‘juniper berries’ are very attractive when they ripen in fall, because they are a rich purple-blue color with a white waxy coating that makes they look brilliant sky-blue. Selected female trees carry heavy crops, and these trees are great garden ornaments all through fall and much of the winter. The berries are a favorite food of many birds, including the Cedar Waxwings, who find them especially delicious. For the biggest berry crops it helps to have a male trees somewhere around, so grow a male variety as well in your garden, or mixed in along a screen.

How to Grow Eastern Red Cedar

This rugged tree is called a ‘pioneer species’ for good reasons. First of all, it is incredibly tough, growing just as well in zone 3, with winters of minus 30, as it does in Florida, with intense summer heat and humidity. It grows well in full sun and open, windswept places. It grows in any kind of soil that is not constantly wet, including dry, shallow rocky soils and sandy soils, as well as heavy clays. Once established it tolerates dryness and drought like few other evergreens can, and for tough areas where water is not going to be available it is a top choice. It isn’t bothered by pests or diseases and both deer and rabbits leave it alone – this is one tough plant. It grows well as a single specimen, and just as well crowded together into a hedge. Its only drawback is that it burns easily, so don’t plant it if you live in areas where fire is a threat.

You can tell how rugged Eastern Red Cedar is by this – in the 1930s there was a farming disaster on the Prairies – the Dustbowl. This destroyed the livelihood of millions of farmers, with the dry soil literally blowing away. To help rebuild the land, the Prairie States Forest Project helped farmers plant millions of trees as windbreaks, which helped bring farming back to the Prairies.

Using Eastern Red Cedar in Your Garden

This tough tree has lots of uses, and you will love its foliage color and bright berries.

Some of the Best Varieties of Eastern Red Cedar

Name Foliage Berries* Form Height/ spread
‘Brodie’ Feather green No Slender cone 15-25

5-10

‘Burkii’ Silver blue No Slender cone, smaller 10-15

4-7

‘Canaertii’ Deep green Yes Narrow cone 20-40

6-15

Emerald Feather

(‘J.N. Select Green’)

Emerald green No Dense cone, soft 12-15

4-6

Emerald Sentinel™ (‘Corcorcor’) Emerald green Yes Dense, upright 12-25

4-10

‘Hillspire’ Rich Green No Slender pyramid 15-30

3-10

‘Idyllwild’ Bright green No Upright, twisted 10-20

5-10

Silver Juniper

(‘Glauca’)

Silver blue Yes Upright pyramid 20-25

6-8

‘Taylor’ Silver blue No Very slender, upright 18-25

3

             

* trees without berries are male

 

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