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Eastern Red-Cedar

Eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is one of my favorite native trees (see the Oct 2023 rant). However, unlike the name implies, it is NOT a true cedar (i.e., the genus Cedrus). Rather, red-cedar is a juniper -- not even in the same family as Cedrus. There are three Indiana native juniper species. Most Hoosiers are surprised to learn that their state has only ten indigenous gymnosperm/conifer species, of which red-cedar is easily the most common, but this was not always the case. The former red-cedar rarity was due to two factors: (1) they are fire intolerant (parts of the Indiana landscape used to burn somewhat frequently) and (2) they are also shade intolerant . . . often get shaded out by broad-leaved deciduous species . . . and pre-settlement Indiana was 95% forest. FYI, the other seven natives are bald cypress, tamarack/Eastern larch, Canada hemlock, Canada yew, Eastern white pine, Jack pine and Virginia pine. Eastern white-cedar (arborvitae) was here but anthropogenic activity destroyed all the native populations. The loss of the special disjunct southern population of arborvitae near Richmond (IN) is especially saddening and lamentable.

But I digress. Here are some Eastern red-cedar particulars. Specimens are 2-3X taller than wide with the crown rarely exceeding 25 feet. It is uncommon to see a specimen topping 50 feet tall even though the trunk diameter can exceed three feet. The current Indiana Big Tree Registry lists a specimen 40 miles south of Indianapolis, with a 48 inch diameter but only 68 feet high. Red-cedar trunks commonly have more than one leader, are furrowed, noticeably thicker below and specimens can live well over 500 years, which is unusual for a pioneer species. Moreover, the branching is horizontal and older specimens can be gnarly and spectacular. I have seen magnificent stunted and misshapen (naturally sculpted) individuals at many locations on exposed rock outcrops, there protected from harvest and fire. Perhaps the most impressive were the specimens I saw 50 years ago on the rocky terraced glades above and extending back from the bend falls at Lusk Creek Canyon (Pope Co, IL). While these are likely the oldest specimens I have encountered, the biggest I have seen are in cemeteries and on old farmsteads where growing conditions were less severe. When young, red-cedar specimens are shrublike (i.e., smaller and the trunk hidden). Further, its fallen vegetation raises the soil pH . . . making it more alkaline . . . and the spent "leaves" as well as the "fruit" and bark are allelopathic, thus helpful in suppressing competitive undergrowth via chemical inhibition. Red-cedar also has weedy tendencies which manifest when fire is eliminated. Fire suppression post-settlement as well as the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels, which favors C3 plants like red-cedar, account for the current abundance along open roadways and in old fields throughout the Midwest (see pic above). Red-cedar tolerates and actually seems to prefer poor and clayey soil, in part because those conditions further limit competition. By the way, there is a Western red-cedar but it is a radically different plant -- not even the same genus, nor a true cedar (see my Oct 2021 rant).
Eastern red-cedar produces two kinds of leaves (awl-like and scale-like). Both types are tiny and cover the thin young stems and twigs. The term needle is often used to describe the look and touch sensation produced by the awl-like vegetation of young specimens and is the prime reason those red-cedars avoid damage from deer browsing. The needles are apparently an age related mechanical defense, much like the prevalence of stipular spines on younger black locust. The scale-like form dominate on older specimens. Moreover, like many evergreen gymnosperms, which includes conifers, red-cedar vegetation will change color during winter. This color for junipers is usually bronze, plum/purple or yellow-brown and is part of the natural mechanism to protect against cold. The specimen(s) will revert to the warm weather color in spring. Notice I said yellow-brown. Brown/tan evergreen vegetation means that part of the plant is dead.

Red-cedar produces a super abundance of small cones and the plants are dioecious (separate male and female, each with different cones). The tiny pollen producing staminate cones are brown and located at the stem terminus (see pic above). The berry-like seed-bearing cones, which are produced along the stems, start out green and mature blue-grey. The blue-grey is rendered by the waxy coating which, if wiped off, will reveal the true color, and the degree of blueness varies. Related, like with many plant seeds, there is a higher level of germination if passed through animal gut, and red-cedar is a wildlife favorite (especially birds), both the cones (as food) and the specimens (for shelter). In fact, cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are so-named because red-cedar cones are a staple in their diet. By the way, "juniper berries" are fragrant when crushed and have long been used as a primary ingredient to produce gin.

The bark of Eastern red-cedar is reddish-brown and tears off in long strips, although it can sometimes be grey to light brown and lack the exfoliated strips. Additionally, the heartwood of red-cedar, which is the basis for the name, is wonderfully fragrant and very fine-grained. Often referred to as aromatic cedar, it was commonly used in the production of pencils until we exhausted the supply. The wood is also naturally resistant to decay and repels insects. Accordingly, the trunk and branches are suitable for fence posts, and the lumber is often used in the construction of cedar closets and chests. Red-cedar is also an excellent turning wood. Some indigenous people used cedar posts to demarcate tribal boundaries and for sacred/ceremonial purposes like at Cahokia's Woodhenge. I recall reading that red-cedar is the basis for the city name Baton Rouge, which translates to red stick -- likely serving as a marker.

Eastern red-cedar is the alternate host for the fungus (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianum). This plant pathogen produces persistent, firm, knobby, red-brown, 1-2 inch diameter, irregularly round galls. In spring the galls morph into what resemble sea creatures, with long, orange, gelatinous, spore-laden tentacles (see pic above). These tentacles, which can more than double the size and weight of the gall, are referred to as telial horns. The horns emerge from the gall after a warm spring rain and contain special spores (teliospores). I look forward to seeing these bizarre arboreal seasonal ornaments. The other host in this complex (cedar-apple rust) life cycle is a rosaceous taxon (e.g., apple, crabapple or hawthorn). Since apple trees are an alternate host it is best not to have red-cedar growing in close proximity. Yet, while the pathogen can be somewhat disfiguring, it is "smart" in that it does not kill either host. Apples and other rosaceous hosts do not develop the cedar-apple balls. Instead, their leaves and fruit develop lesions. These spots are concentrically orange and yellow with a distinct dark center where the spores are borne. The infection causes leaves to drop prematurely and makes the affected fruit unmarketable.

Red-cedar (1) is an easy to grow evergreen native, (2) has a wide ecological amplitude (poor soil, drought, salt and pollution tolerant), (3) can be long-lived and improve with age, (4) has a slow to moderate rate of growth (faster in moist rich locations), (5) does not get too big and (6) is not prone to ice, snow or wind damage (split fracture or tip-up). Yet, despite these virtues and its ornamental potential, the species is underutilized in landscaping. For my money, the best of the several available cultivars are 'Canaertii,' 'Pendula,' and especially the awesome teal to grey blue form 'Glauca.' The 'Glauca' pictured above is an uberimpressive but neglected (unmanicured) 1 ft DBH specimen on the northside of Indianapolis -- the super color is muted (as well as accentuated) by the rich clear blue early morning sky. Moreover, the full magnificent of the specimen is obscured by the tree behind it. And when red-cedar specimens are laden with "fruit" they may appear blue or bluer. Bear in mind that 'Glauca' and 'Pendula' are both umbrella names for several blue or weeping versions -- the 'Pendula' pictured above is five feet tall and situated in a boulder-ringed raised bed format I use. I have not seen a blue weeping form. The Dean, Michael Dirr (Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs) says of Eastern red-cedar, "can prosper where few other plants even survive . . . and artistic with age," but somehow and surprisingly he did not comment on 'Glauca.' The species obviously has considerable morphological plasticity. I suggest several new cultivars will be forthcoming since I see lots of interesting and appealing variation in wild-growing specimens; e.g., an individual growing along an abandoned railroad near where I live. That specimen has what I refer to as brocculiform appearance, i.e., mounding masses of vegetation, somewhat reminiscent of a head of broccoli. Further, I was tempted to include/promote the columnar 'Taylor' but all the specimens I have seen are berry-less (thus presumably male, which I find less appealing) and I first need to witness older specimens -- the cultivar has only been available for three decades. 'Burkii' is a conical blue dwarf male cultivar that I find much less appealing than 'Glauca.' FYI, the "fruiting" 'Burkii' sometimes seen online cannot be.

Eastern red-cedar is an excellent, tough, low maintenance plant perfect for landscaping in a warming climate and small sunny lots with poor soil. I am especially enthralled with its potential use as a windbreak, visual block and as sound abatement along some narrow and otherwise unuseable, undesirable and harsh stretches of roadways corridors. We can and should consider using sumac similarly. I certainly find these options far more appealing than the recent, omnipresent, cold and fortresslike concrete and steel barriers. While the living red-cedar wall would take longer to develop, they would be more aesthetically pleasing, substantially less expensive (our tax $), would last much longer and represent a more ecologically sensible alternative. There is a special opportunity for such an endeavor along 38th Street (E of Kessler, both N and S of 38th) on the northwest side of Indianapolis (see pic above {N side view}, the plants were transforming from the winter coloration). I am in discussion with city officials in hope of getting protection for this naturally produced asset, to serve as a leading example. Perhaps a named parkway. These groves (why not gin as the collective noun?), like the one along 38th Street, would be very low maintenance and largely self weeding underneath the cedars (due to the allelopathy) -- this includes grass. However, the gins would be better if (1) the specimens were thinned and (2) by removing the lower branches of the remaining specimens. The up-limbing, which would only need to be done once, improves the appearance, makes the specimens more accessible and reduces their susceptibility to fire damage. Understand that juniper pruning can be challenging . . . evergreens in general can perplex even those with a good eye and experience. Additionally, care should be taken NOT to cleanup the specimens too much. As the trees age the sometimes twisted and weathered branches can be spectacularly interesting. -- The 38th Street parkway idea makes sense but this is Indianapolis so it may be a challenge (see the Apr 2022 blog).

While red-cedar is a wise landscaping choice, if considering any of the related and enticing blue Rocky Mountain juniper (J. scopulorum) cultivars for the Midwest, DON'T! The species WILL, I repeat, WILL develop phomopsis blight (a foliar fungal disease) and gradually turn the specimen brown (i.e., will quickly ruin the plant). Young specimens are especially susceptible and notice that there are NO old J. scopulorum specimens in the region. By the way, Eastern red-cedar is only occasionally affected and never as severely. And beware of label info: I have observed that many specimens labeled as J. virginiana either are not or only partially such (e.g., 'Grey Owl' is a beautiful bluish female plant and a cross between J. virginiana and x pfitzeriana, which is itself a hybrid {chinensis x sabina} and variable). I suspect the misinformation is often intentional; intended to take advantage of its nativity, albeit partial. The omission/oversight obscures the fact this halfbreed also has Chinese and Eurasian parentage, thus less appealing to misguided native purists. SIDE NOTE: Several garden centers have told me their suppliers have gotten worse at providing correct label identification for specimens. Further, the "info" available online is usually even less reliable. For example, I typed in HOW BIG WILL GREY OWL JUNIPER GET and got this response, "will grow to be about 3 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 5 feet," which is marketing BS! Fact is, NO WOODY PLANT STOPS GROWING UNLESS DORMANT OR DEAD!!! Most of the full size or maturity statements re woodies are fiction. I have seen unlabled specimens of what appeared to be 'Grey Owl' more than head high and well over 50 feet across, with yet more growth to come. 'Grey Owl' is an attractive ornamental shrub but is underutilized and then usually misplaced. Specimens need full sun and a large open area for the eventual spread of its low canopy. While it can be somewhat controlled by regular skilled pruning, whereas shearing ruins the specimen. I am nine years into a planned prune control of a 'Grey Owl' but even I underestimated. My small (two gallon container) specimen is already four feet high and 14 feet wide, but would be much wider had I not on several occasions removed large branches. Incorrect spacing is one of the most common gardening mistakes/regrets. There is rarely a reset option in the real world. Think due diligence and avoidance when appropriate.

Finally, one of the common problem claims against junipers (and arborvitae) is that they are "always and most susceptible" to bagworm infestations. Yes, the defoliating bagworms, which are easily controlled, occasionally can be a problem on junipers and arborvitae, but their presence is NOT an absolute. Moreover, I have seen bagworms defoliating numerous other plants species . . . reported from >100 . . . including many broad-leaf species, and have seen the bags that encase the foraging moth caterpillar attached to tires, dumpsters, patio furniture, fencing, bicycles and even fire hydrants. -- A good gardener will keep an open mind and react according to reality.


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