Eastern red cedar's scalelike mature leaves and leathery blue female cones.
Eastern red cedar is a medium sized evergreen coniferous tree with dense aromatic foliage. They typically get 40-60 ft (12-18 m) tall and usually have a symmetrical conelike to columnar shape. Often, however, due to poor soil conditions, the trees remain much smaller and even bushlike. The bark is grayish to reddish and in mature trees it is fibrous and peels in thin shreds. Leaves of young specimens and those on the tips of young branches are needlelike, and a quarter to a half inch (5-10 mm) long. The needles spread out distally and do not overlap. Mature leaves are triangular, and shaped like scales. They overlap and are closely adpressed to the twigs in four rows. The scalelike mature leaves are less than a quarter inch (5 mm) long. Male and female cones are on separate trees and often carried in great profusion. The male cones can be so numerous as to give the whole tree a yellowish cast when in full bloom in late winter. Female cones are blueish and remind one of berries. They too can be so abundant that the tree appears bluish from a distance.
Numerous cultivars of red cedar have been selected, including some with a more bluish foliage color, some that remain bushlike, some with a spreading, almost weeping habit, and some with a pronounced columnar shape.
Eastern red cedar is one of the first species to grow on the raw earth exposed by this hillside cut.
Location Juniperus virginiana (eastern red cedar) occurs from southern Quebec and Maine west to North Dakota and south to Texas and Florida. The species is found on disturbed sites (especially those with calcareous soils) that have been protected from fire such as road shoulders, old fields and abandoned farms, as well as in more natural habitats that rarely burn such as bottomland forests, along creeks, salt marshes, barrier islands and in wet to mesic hammocks, usually with limestone at or near the surface.
Red cedars do not do well on acidic soils. Light: Red cedar grows in dappled shade, but grows better in full sun. Very young specimens can handle nearly full shade (“tolerant” as a forester would describe it). Moisture: Red cedar is not well tolerant of excessive drought and should be watered during prolonged dry periods. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3-9. Propagation: Seeds may take up to five years to germinate. Softwood cuttings taken in spring can be rooted under mist.
The cultivar 'Glauca' has foliage with a bluish tinge - seen here flanking a crypt at Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum.
Red cedars are frequently used as living screens. They grow fast and have very dense foliage with the lower branches often persisting to ground level. Closely spaced trees can form a visual barrier within just a couple years of setting out and rarely need any pruning. They are useful as windbreaks and shelterbelts.
Pencil wood is usually made from red cedars and a thriving pencil manufacturing industry once populated the Gulf Coast of the southeastern U.S. where red cedars grew (and still do) in abundance. The industry was severely impacted by the invention of the ball-point pen. The red, aromatic wood (apparently not liked by clothes moths) is used for cedar chests and closets. The wood is resistant to rot and sometimes used for fence posts. Native Americans made bows from the wood. They also inhaled smoke from the cones, twigs, roots and wood for the treatment of colds and coughs. Juniper oil from the “berries” is used to flavor gin. Birds relish the mature female cones (called “juniper berries”) which persist into winter.
Red cedar is in the genus Juniperus, and probably should have been named “red juniper.” Here in northern Florida, “juniper” refers to Chamaecyparis thyoides, or Atlantic white cedar, which is not a cedar either, but actually a type of cypress. Confused?
Eastern red cedar is killed by fire and so was not a common component of the upland habitats in the southern U.S., which were characterized by frequent, natural ground fires before modern Man’s wide scale fire suppression. Nowadays red cedar is invasive, colonizing upland sites where fires no longer burn and competition from other trees is minimal.
Juniperus silicicola, or southern red cedar, is no longer recognized as a separate species.
Eastern red cedar is an alternate host for cedar-apple rust and should not be grown near apple orchards.