With the leaves gone off trees, all the characteristics of our evergreen trees really come out. One of the most distinctive is our native red cedar, juniperus virginiana; it is very common in our fields and roadsides here in Delmarva.
It is what is known as a pioneer species, meaning it is one of the first to grow in an area that has been disturbed — by fire, construction or any kind of change. Usually, pioneer species are fairly short-lived, living just long enough to provide better habitat for the next generations. But red cedar — which isn’t a cedar at all but a member of the juniper family — can be very long lived.
Like most pioneer plants, it isn’t at all picky about soil, growing just about anywhere, including salty and alkaline soils. It can take periodic flooding and is drought-tolerant when established. Its only requirement — not surprising for a plant that grows in the middle of fields, is all-day sun (six hours or more). It will grow where few other plants will; it prefers nutrient poor soils. This is a great tree to plant if you’re in a new subdivision — especially since it makes a great windbreak.
Red Cedars can grow to 40 feet tall and 20 feet around. They are thick and conical, with branches low on the trunk almost at ground level. The bark is reddish brown and peeling. Like some other plants (English ivy among others) it has different types of leaves, depending on their age or the age of the tree. Younger trees, less than 3 years old, and younger branches, have short, quarter-inch prickly needle leaves. Older trees and branches have leaves that are like scales on the branch.
Red cedars are also dioecious, meaning that there are male and female plants — males have small quarter-inch brown cones, and females have small blue/gray berries. Well — they look like berries, but they are actually cones, too. Many birds love the fruit — cedar waxwings in particular, which is why they are named after them.
This tree is one of the best for your wildlife garden! The female cones are relatively high in carbohydrates and fats, so they are loved by birds. A number of insects eat different parts of the tree, thereby providing food for even more birds. Many birds use the tree for nesting, including cooper’s hawks, blue jays, northern mockingbirds, robins, prairie warblers, pine warblers, and different finches and sparrows. Other birds love it to roost in, and different small and large mammals like the female cones as well. It is also well known for its strong and fragrant wood.
Unfortunately, it is an alternate host for a fungal disease — rust — but as along as the tree and the other hosts are healthy, they will survive it, although the fruit of the other host will be affected. Don’t plant it near apple trees because of this.
Use eastern red cedar 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 (Taylor is one of the best) 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. It has a place in your garden!