FIELD NOTES: Our Red Cedar
When I was in high school I was given the home project of lining a closet with cedar boards. They came in a box, pre-cut, tongue and grooved, in thin pieces. I was to install them on the inside of a double-doored storage unit built in the garage. The closet would store woolens and winter clothes. It wasn’t a difficult job. I can remember to this day the pungent aroma that wafted up with each board. Since then, red cedar has made an impact, both as a marketable product and in its natural state.
The red cedar, Juniperus virginiana is one of Indiana’s two native evergreens—the other eastern hemlock. Red cedar is familiar to most Hoosiers since they appear in every one of the state’s 92 counties. Roadside fence rows, ditches, rocky bluffs and abandoned pastures are common places to find them. The small, prickly needles, cone-shaped silhouette, and shreddy bark are field characteristics. We all recognize the aroma of cedar wood.
The cedars stand out with a bit of evergreen among the leafless Brown County hardwoods that dominate the winter landscape. The needles are dark green to blue-green, opposite on the stem, and are of two types: scalelike, 1/16 inch long, appearing like a braided rope; and needle-like, half inch long, sharp and singly on the twig.
After handling a few cedar branches with my bare hands to make holiday decorations, I turned to a pair of leather gloves to help deflect the stiff needles. I felt an itchiness caused by the tiny bristles from those needles, that persisted for a few hours.
My friends, Laura and Dick, live on hilly Brown County land that was once farmed, but is now uncultivated. The cedars that grow here, many ages and sizes, are thick and full, exposed to full sun on a high ridge. Intrigued with the thought the red cedar was used as a Christmas tree by early Hoosiers, I asked Laura several years ago if I could cut a cedar for our tree at home.
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “Come and take several. We want to have more of an open pasture.”
Somewhat unconventional in shape and size, I was met with puzzled looks as I dragged the tree from the truck. It was tall and fully branched but admittedly, not the look of balsams, firs, or pines we had in previous years. “That’s our Christmas tree?” asked our youngest son, Kurt. “Yea, it’ll be great,” I offered, but knew it may take some getting used to. By morning I knew I made a good choice. The aroma from the needles that greeted us was a selling point.
Decorating that first cedar, and those since, usually reveals some kind of tightly hidden bird nest.
Twelve species of juniper grow in the US and are important to wildlife. They provide protective and nesting cover. Chipping sparrows, robins, song sparrows, and mockingbirds use these trees as favorite nesting sites. In winter, the dense protective shelter is especially valuable.
The young twigs and foliage are eaten extensively by hooved browsers, but the chief attraction to wildlife is the bluish-black, berrylike fruit. The fleshy berries are small, about a quarter-inch long, and only occur on older trees. They are fragrant when crushed, smell like dry gin, and are used in its processing. The blue cluster on top of green branches can give a festive look to winter wreaths and centerpieces.
Cedar waxwings are one of the principal users of berries, but numerous other birds and mammals—both large and small—make these fruits an important part of their diet.
Any detriment to its presence? Yes, as apple growers know, it is an alternative host for the apple rust and is typically removed from orchards. A local apple hobbyist we know is tolerant and lets them grow along fencerows on his property.
Many log home owners in northern regions use the tall, straight white cedar for building. They know to cut the tree in mid-summer when the outer bark is pliable, soft and wet underneath. It can be easily removed from the tree, sometimes in long strips, using peeling spuds or scraper blades. Logs are left to dry, stacked for a year to season, then are ready for building. In its more southern range, the red cedar is used for fence posts, furniture, pencils, and long bows.
The red cedar is a welcomed sight as we travel along Brown County roads. Watch this winter for snow to gather on its branches with bare ground underneath, and know that for any wild critter—four-legged, or winged—the thick, dense branching will be a refuge in the wind and cold. And the green branches with blue berries will add color this winter to our rolling, wooded landscape.