January 2023: Eastern Red Cedar
Homegrown Habitat provides advice on what and where to plant, one per month, written by Sarah W. Middeleer, a landscape designer whose work focuses on ecology and designing for wildlife. Sarah serves as vice chair of the Connecticut Audubon Board of Directors. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a handsome evergreen conifer that offers structure and winter interest to our gardens. It is often overlooked, but cedar has much to offer the home gardener and is a magnet for birds and many species of butterflies and moths.
Eastern red cedars are among the first trees to appear in abandoned fields or other disturbed land. Yet when allowed to remain in full sun, they live a long time. They are actually not cedars but a type of juniper. Red cedars are native to much of North America east of the Rocky Mountains and tolerate a variety of conditions and soils. They have the best drought tolerance of any conifer native to the eastern U.S.
These valuable trees typically grow 30-40 feet high by 10-20 feet wide. They are high branching with age, exposing attractive reddish-to-gray peeling bark.
In youth the red cedar’s needles are prickly, perhaps in defense of browsing animals. As the tree grows beyond the reach of browsers, its needles become softer and smoother, resembling the scaled leaves of arborvitae. Authors vary in their reports of deer resistance — some sources say that eastern red cedar is deer resistant, while others warn of severe damage by deer to young trees.
Each eastern red cedar is either male or female, which means that only the females will produce the lovely blue “juniper berries” scarfed down by hungry flocks of cedar waxwings (and many other birds if they can get there in time) in fall and winter. These fruits are actually cones. Their waxy, metallic-blue exterior is often dusted with a white “bloom,” lending them a frosted appearance.
Gilles Carter, Connecticut Audubon board member, has photographed many species of birds enjoying eastern red cedars and has this observation: “The kinglets pick little spiders and other insects out from in between the needles, at hyper-speed.” Need one have any other reason to plant an eastern red cedar?
If so, here’s one: red cedars attract at least 38 species of beneficial butterflies and moths, including juniper hairstreak and pine elfin. The caterpillars of these lepidoptera are a critical food source for nestlings (and perhaps some of those kinglets).
If you have room, plant eastern red cedars in groupings or hedgerows — not only for the beauty of this arrangement, but also to ensure that at least some of them will bear fruit. A layered planting, with other native evergreens and deciduous shrubs, will be a superb windbreak or privacy screen and will offer food and shelter to birds and other wildlife. Follow the birds’ example; as one author says, “Fence-sitting birds have deposited redcedar seeds along nearly every fence within its range.”
Cedars can be utilized in other ways. If you have a meadow, a few cedars there will be a natural fit. Another good location is roadside; due to their smaller stature, red cedars won’t likely conflict with utility cables. These tough trees tolerate road salts, wind, air pollution, drought, and poor soils. Several along the street, underplanted with little bluestem, would be low maintenance for you and a delight to birds and other people.
But if you only have room for one eastern red cedar, they make attractive specimen trees in full sun. Cut a generous bed, and try underplanting the tree with asters, goldenrod, mountain mint, and yarrow—common companions of cedar in the wild.
Aromatic, insect repellent, and rot resistant, the wood of eastern red cedar is used for cedar chests, fences, and rustic outdoor furniture. And of course “juniper berries” are a crucial ingredient in gin.
One note of caution: the fungal disease cedar apple rust can be shared by eastern red cedars and plants in the rose family, including many types of fruit trees. This fungus rarely causes severe damage to its hosts (the orange “spore horns” that appear in spring on the red cedars’s rust galls are fascinating but harmless), but you may wish to avoid planting cedars in the immediate vicinity of fruit trees. Consult your local extension agent for more information.
Native Trees for North American Landscapes From the Atlantic to the Rockies, Guy Sternberg and Jim Wilson, Timber Press, 2004
American Plants for American Gardens, by Edith A. Roberts and Elsa Rehmann, University of Georgia Press, 1996
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, by Michael A. Dirr, Stipes Publishing Company, 2009
Native Plants for New England Gardens, Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe, 2018, Globe Pequot
Native Trees for Northeast Landscapes, Wild Seed Project, 2021
The Northeast Native Plant Primer, Uli Lorimer, Timber Press, 2022