Hailed as one of the top five Christmas trees in America, the eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), attributes its seasonal significance to its evergreen boughs and aromatic properties. More than just a holiday favorite, this tree has enjoyed a distinguished history throughout its native range in a host of natural and manmade roles, thanks in part to its unique ecology.
The most widely distributed conifer of tree size in the eastern United States, this celebrated evergreen is an unusually long-lived species, with a potential to live 850 years. Ahardy conifer, eastern redcedar is also a pioneer species, boldly repopulating cleared, eroded, or damaged land.
Despite its common name, the eastern redcedar is not a true cedar. This dense, slow-growing tree (16 to 66 feet tall) is a species of juniper native to eastern North America. The sharp, scale-like leaves, characteristic reddish-brown, fibrous bark and dark blue, berry-like seed cones set this juniper apart from its evergreen neighbors.
Because this tree is dioecious (expressing male and female reproductive structures on different trees), the pollen cones, much smaller than the seed cones, reside on a separate tree. Both the bark and seed cones are utilized by wildlife species. Birds peel the bark off in narrow strips and use it as nesting material. Birds, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums and coyotesconsume the seeds, which arehigh in crude fat and fiber, dietary staples especially during the winter when other foods are scarce. In addition to sustenance, eastern redcedar also provides shelter for wildlife, including roosting cover for birds and escape cover for deer.
Eastern redcedar has also proven useful to man during settlement of the Southeast. French traders named Baton Rouge, La.(meaning "red stick"), from the reddish color of the juniper poles used by Native American tribes to mark tribal hunting territories.
Even today, the durability of the redcedar makes it highly valued in the Great Plains states as a shelter belt planting because of its resistance to drought, heat and freezing temperatures. Because its fibrous root system helps hold soil in place, eastern redcedar is one of the best trees for protecting soils from wind erosion and reducing the devastating effects of wind.
The strength of the redcedar lies in its heartwood. Though fine-grained and fragrant, the wood is light and durable, even in contact with soil. Its rot-resistant nature makes the wood ideal for fence posts; and its aromatic properties deter moths, increasing its demand as a lining for clothes chests and closets. The wood is also used to make English longbows, flatbows and Native American sinew-backed bows. Additional uses include distilling the oil from the wood, twigs and leaves and utilizing the cones as a gin flavor and kidney edicine.
This Christmas, take a moment to appreciate the eastern redcedar for more than just its pleasing aroma. Contemplate how its pioneering durability has provided strength throughout the centuries.