Ode to the Eastern Red Cedar

Juniperus virginiana, or the Eastern Red Cedar, or simply “cedar” where I live, is a very worthy tree in my opinion. I have a few reasons for this.

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(Those fiber rods are in there with some electric wire to stop the cow from rubbing this tree to death. This tree volunteered the year I moved here, no doubt planted by a bird, and all I did was ignore it.)

The first is that cedar wood is soft, rot resistant, and the trees usually grow in a conical shape with the strong central leader like most coniferous trees. It is the perfect fence post tree in my opinion. On any forage-powered farm (as opposed to tractor-powered) a supply of fence posts is of tremendous value. Ordinary nominal 5” diameter 8’ long CCA treated fence posts are $8. A 6-8’ diameter one is usually double the cost around $15-16. And treated pine fence posts not only cost a bunch and are heavy to haul to your property, but they are also not very environmentally friendly and literally have poisons driven into them under high pressure. You shouldn’t burn them, and they shouldn’t come into contact with anything you’d eat, either. They are something that is used because there is no practical alternative. Steel T-posts can’t do the same job often, and purchasing rot-resistant hardwood posts (White Oak, Osage Orange, Black Locust) is simply unaffordable (these cost 4x more than CCA treated pine if they can be found at all). Also, hardwood posts are hard, difficult to remove branches from, and don’t take staples as well as pine or cedar.

The second reason why I like cedar is that animals find their foliage unpalatable. They can sprout in a pasture and animals leave them alone like they would a thistle. This makes them very easy to grow in a pasture. You can plant a row of them or a grove of them and not have to fence them in, because the animals will mostly leave them alone! I’ve also read that if you let the tree get to the size it would provide shade (a valuable thing in a pasture) cattle will rub their backsides on the foliage presumably in an effort to get some of the fly-repellent oil on their hair. Cedar wood supposedly repels insects, which is why the lumber has historically been used to line closets and make blanket chests and whatnot. I’ve made beehives out of Eastern Red Cedar, so I have my doubts about this.

The third reason why I like cedar is that it is perhaps the most “weedy” tree out there. You see cedars growing along highways cut through hills, growing in basically pure gravel or rubble. They are the first tree to pioneer on a site generally, and are tolerant of an incredible range of adversities. They can deal with high pH, low pH, no soil, wet soil, clay, wind, floods, droughts, etc. They do not, however, fix nitrogen like leguminous trees do, but it never seems to be a problem. They are the dandelion of trees.

So, you might wonder, why doesn’t everybody esteem the Eastern Red Cedar so highly? Why isn’t it considered the Oak or Walnut or Cherry? Well, there are a few things about Red Cedar that aren’t so great. For example, this weedyness can be an annoyance if you are trying to keep a hayfield or a pasture clean. Birds eat their little seeds and poop them out everywhere, though a mowing once a year controls them. Also, cedars are not as fast growing as pines, but they are faster than most hardwoods. And they are the host-reservoir for Cedar-Apple Rust, which is a fungal disease that injures Apple trees. There is little anyone can do about this (except remove ever Cedar in a 1.5 mile radius around the Apple tree), but at least I’ve never actually had a problem with Cedar-Apple Rust.

And finally, Cedars transplant poorly it seems. While the tree is incredibly weedy and grows from seed easier than about any other tree I know of, even sprouting up in cornfields sprayed with Roundup, I have never been able to dig up a cedar and transplant it and have it survive the year. I’ve also ordered plug-transplants from a commercial nursery, carefully set them out exactly as directed (along with many other trees) only to have all 100 of them die by 10 weeks, while 90% of the other trees lived. I am left with the conclusion that they just transplant poorly, so I found another way I’d like the share, a way that would also work for any other tree that grows well from seed (ones where squirrels are not a problem).

Here is the process:

  • After finding the spot, take a square edged digging spade and push it down into the soil about 3-5 inches to penetrate the sod. This is best done in the late winter or early spring when the ground is very soft. Make a little square of it.

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  • Now take the square sod plug and flip it over, leaving a little hole. At this point I like to take a digging fork and drive it into the hole to aerate it a bit, but this may be pointless. It makes me feel good though.

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  • Carefully place the plug of sod upside down in the hole. Take the spade and chop it up a bit.

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  • Place three cedar seeds in the loosened soil and press them down with your finger or perhaps cover it very lightly with a little bit of soil. I hedge my bets and push one deep, one shallow, and cover one. I plant them an inch or so apart so that it will be easy to prune the undesirables.

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  • Sit back and watch them grow in the spring. Don’t be surprised if more than one grows, but keep the best and prune the others. The little bit of inverted sod will die and provide some good compost for the little cedar seedling and reduce competition for a year or so. By next year the cedar should hold its own and need virtually no care (maybe pruning low branches) until you are ready to harvest it.

One might wonder how to get these cedar seeds. They aren’t in any seed catalogs. I collected them from my locality, taking them from the nicest looking female cedar tree I could find (male cedars do not make seeds, only pollen bearing cones). You can determine a female tree by examining the little “cedar berries” that are dropped. If you rub one in your fingers and one or two little seeds are exposed, then you have a female. If it doesn’t seem to have anything it but dust and small bits of material, then it is a male cone and wont grow anything, and neither will anything else from that tree (Eastern Red Cedars are either male or female).

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2 Responses to Ode to the Eastern Red Cedar

  1. Pingback: The hybrid living fence | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  2. Pingback: Trees for Tomorrow | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

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