Although Christmas is past, I wanted to focus my blog on this most beautiful and versatile tree: the eastern red cedar (𝘑𝘶𝘯𝘪𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘶𝘴 𝘷𝘪𝘳𝘨𝘪𝘯𝘪𝘢𝘯𝘢). The eastern red cedar was the Christmas tree of choice in the southern U.S. before the spread of plantation-grown trees. People prized them for their conical shape, wonderful fragrance, decorative “berries,” and ready availability. In many families, the yearly tradition was to go out into the woods to cut a tree for the season (a practice that persists for some). In the South Carolina Botanical Garden, visit this beautiful specimen across from the entrance to the Pollinator Garden outside the Nature Center.
In the landscape, eastern red cedar is a tree that exhibits significant variation. Our full and lush specimen photographed above has siblings in the woods that resemble a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. However, this evergreen tree’s ability to withstand significant soil variation and harsh weather conditions makes it a good choice for some difficult garden situations. In disturbed areas, it is often a first responder, putting down a deep tap root and then a myriad of shallower roots that can stabilize soil. Evergreen eastern red cedar is a good choice for a windbreak or shelterbelt. Humans have intervened to breed cultivars more uniformly and emphasize this evergreen’s desirable traits. As a result, there is a tree for almost every landscape situation.
As you can see, this year, our eastern red cedar is laden with “berries.” The berries are cones of soft, fleshy scales and indicate that our tree is a female (eastern red cedars are dioecious. The pollen-laden cones of male trees are smaller and dull yellow in color.) This berry bounty and the winter protection afforded by this evergreen tree make it both a diner and a hotel for many birds and small mammals. The shredded bark is a great nest material, too!
The connections between people and Juniperus virginiana run deep. In several Native American cultures, members burn the fragrant wood for purification rituals, and the eastern red cedar was often regarded as a tree of life. The berries and twigs were used extensively for medicine, made into decoctions or steam treatments to treat rheumatism and colds. They cut the timber to build homes and make furniture and other items to fill them. Indigenous people crafted precious objects from the fragrant heartwood: cradleboards, love flutes, and even long-lasting cedar staves to enclose graves. They recognized the ability of the wood to repel insects and used it accordingly. Cedar boughs were believed to protect against lightning and were placed on tepee poles in many tribes.
One writer in the early 1800s remarked: “Red cedar, when full grown, is a middling sized tree, though, on account of the value of its wood, it is seldom suffered to reach its full dimensions.” The author, Arthur Bigelow, wrote a treatise outlining the medical uses of eastern red cedar, which Europeans found similar to savin, something they knew from home. They also used it for rheumatism, but most extensively in a salve to heal wounds. Colonizers continued other European traditions in the new land and harvested the aromatic wood to line chests and closets. Northern pencil manufacturers discovered splinter-resistant eastern red cedar excellent for making quality products. Ultimately, they migrated their factories to the south to be close to the source, and Tennessee became the center of the industry. By the 1900s, there was not enough J. virginiana to satisfy demand, so pencil makers began to use incense cedar from California. Aside from crafting decorative objects, one of the most common uses of cedar today is as highly durable fence posts.
Take a winter walk in your local woods or the South Carolina Botanical Garden to see if you can spot this woodland treasure.