The Eastern Red Cedar
Find out why you should grow this versatile juniper in your landscape.
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is an American native commonly seen along roadsides and in abandoned fields throughout the eastern half of the country. As a landscape plant, it is underused as we opt for the juniper species of exotic origins. It deserves a second look.
Eastern red cedar is a medium sized evergreen tree, commonly reaching 40 feet tall and 15 feet wide at a slow to medium rate. The foliage is made up of scale-like leaves that are pressed closely together and overlapping at the young growing tips, becoming spiky as it ages. With a bluish tint above and a flat green below, at a distance the general impression is a dark blue green, and sometimes dark olive color turning slightly bronze in winter. This conifer produces quarter-inch cones that most of us would call “berries.” They are dark blue-brown with a waxy frosted coating that gives them a blue appearance. This tree is grown for its foliage, either as a specimen, screen, topiary or grouping. It is hardy in zones 3-9.
Eastern red cedar has a broad distribution throughout eastern North America east of the Rocky Mountains, with the exception of the higher elevations in the Appalachians and the Gulf Coast. It is widely recognized for its ability to thrive on thin, rocky soils. However, it thrives in the deep loamy limestone soils of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, where it regularly attains grand stature in expansive stands excluding other plants.
Upon arrival on the eastern seaboard, early colonists quickly adopted red cedar for a wide range of uses. Fences, shingles, coffins and superstructures of boats were made with this highly decay resistant wood. The fragrance and colorful appearance of the wood recommended its use for a wide range of home furnishings as well, even if the fragile nature of the wood did not. Possibly the single greatest use for the vast virgin red cedar reserves in the upper Cumberland valley was pencil making, until the western incense cedars became the preferred species.
Occasionally a tree gets caught up in politics as well as economics. The red cedar became the scapegoat for a disease called cedar-apple rust in the early twentieth century. This particular disease thrives by alternating hosts during various stages of its life cycle, spending part of it’s life on one plant then moving to the other to complete its life cycle, and in doing so damaging both.
As orchardists felt the economic pinch of this disease, laws were enacted in Virginia and West Virginia that allowed orchardists to eradicate all cedars within a large area surrounding the orchards, without compensation to the cedar owners. In Shepherdstown, WV the issue came to a head in 1929, as a small landowner, with the help of numerous community supporters, fought and lost in the courts and on the woodlot to save her cedars. In doing so, she briefly brought to the local consciousness the issues of freedom, economics, rights of ownership and even plant pathology.
Transplant container grown or balled in burlap stock. Red cedar is tolerant of wide ranging soil conditions, but requires a well drained situation and generally benefits from additional lime. It requires full sun.
Cedar apple rust galls appear inconspicuously as hard brownish balls on the foliage in dry weather. In wet spring weather, the galls soften and produce long yellow gelatinous strands. Spores from these strands are carried on the wind to infect apple trees (which reveal yellow blotched foliage when infected), from which spores blow back to infect cedars. Treat by pruning away any galls that appear.
A Few Popular Landscape Cultivars
- ‘Emerald Sentinel’
- ‘Grey Owl’