red cedar

Our Love-Hate Relationship With The Red Cedar Tree

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

As with the New York Yankees, country people either love red cedars or hate them. One side says that red cedar is a fast-spreading weed tree and is a host for a disease harmful to apple trees. The other side maintains that red cedar is an attractive windbreak tree with useful, beautiful wood and berries beloved by many birds.

Years ago I fell in love with a Kentucky girl, and then I fell in love with the red cedar trees that adorned (or scourged, depending on one’s view) her family’s farm. When Carol and I married and moved north, to Ohio, we brought some red cedars along so that something in our farm landscape would remind her of home. The trees were already headed north anyway, the seed carried by birds which love the berries. Her brother, who had an orchard on their home farm, almost threw a fit. He protested that red cedar is a host for apple cedar rust which is harmful to apple trees, especially yellow varieties. I countered that his orchard was surrounded, literally, by red cedar trees, and he still got tons of apples including yellow ones, so what’s the big deal. In the end, he shrugged at my contrariness and helped me dig up some seedlings to take north.  As he finally admitted, he thought the pesky tree was pretty too.

That was over thirty years ago. Today our little farm’s fence rows are lined with red cedars twenty feet or more in height. Although the trees are spreading like weeds wherever left undisturbed,  just as they do in Kentucky, I am discovering so many advantages from them that I am for once glad for being contrary.

So far, we have had no trouble with cedar apple rust on our apple trees. Perhaps I am just lucky. Talking to orchardists, however, I don’t find anyone very concerned about the disease. Some apple and crab varieties, Red Delicious especially, are almost immune to it.  (You can google cedar apple rust and find out more than you ever wanted to know about controlling it.) The fungus is easy to identify on red cedar because it appears as a bright orange cluster of gelatinous spaghetti-like efflorescences.  Quite attractive unless you grow apples for a living.

Being a pioneer tree, red cedar, which is really a juniper (junipera virginianus), spreads quickly on cleared land and then gives way in a century or so to hardwoods that eventually grow up and shade it out. That is why there are so many red cedars in the mid-south. They are retaking abandoned farm land or where hardwood forests have been cut over, just as nature intends them to do. In the meantime they provide wonderful wildlife cover, erosion control, a good winter food supply as well as nesting sites for birds, and fairly good fence posts.  At least twenty species of birds feast on the berries. On our farm, bluebirds, which used to migrate south for the winter, now stick around and seem to get along quite well on those berries and those of a far worse weed pest, multi-flora rose.

Unlike other weeds and weed trees, red cedar seedlings, when mowed off, do not regrow so they are easy to control in pastures. They will grow fairly well on poor land and as far as I can see, are practically indestructible although limbs will break off rather easily to heavy wind or ice. Seedlings transplant easily. I have occasionally pulled them out of the ground without digging and replanted them rather carelessly and they still took root. Another plus: livestock won’t eat red cedar (unless starving) so you can plant them for a windbreak and the animals won’t graze them down.

As a fence row tree, they make wonderful shade for livestock in hot weather and shelter from wind and snow in winter. (See photo)  The animals, loitering in the shade, keep weeds from growing up under the cedars. Planted about 12-14 feet apart, the trees branch out and fill the gaps between them, and the branches grow so thick that they make an effective barrier for livestock but especially deer. The branches growing rather densely, prevent deer from jumping a livestock fence underneath them. As the trees age, they tend to lose their lower limbs, like all old trees do. But new seedlings continue to grow up next to the older trees to maintain a fairly good barrier. Originally, I planted the trees next to woven wire fence. Now the fence is deteriorating but the tree limbs twining through the woven wire take its place to some extent. As necessary, I replace parts of the old fence with wire panels and secure the panels to the tree trunks with plastic twine. The tree branches are so thick that inserting the panels under them is often difficult. But once in place, they don’t need much support other than the branches of old trees and young seedlings growing up through them. Red cedar trees can last a long time and so can the wire panels, so the fencing that I am now doing is rather permanent. Too bad I can’t live another seventy years to brag about it.

Red cedars, grown this way, often make more than one trunk, which is good for turning livestock and deer.  But the lesser trunks can and do break over in storms. These I cut and trim for fence posts. Cedar, with its oily sap, makes a fairly long-lasting post at four or more inches in diameter. Red cedar posts are often a commercial woodland crop in the mid-South.

The wood itself is in demand for lining closets and trunks to ward off clothes moths. In our area and farther south, Amish sawmills sometimes have red cedar lumber for sale in small amounts so I suppose local lumberyards occasionally have some wherever red cedar flourishes. The wood is usually expensive. If you have your own trees, it is best to make lumber out of them with a band saw, not a circular saw, since the bandsaw blade wastes less of the precious wood in the saw kerf. Another of my brothers-in-laws makes wooden boxes and other knick knacks out of red cedar (see photo). The deep maroon wood with yellow sap wood  are most eye-catching.

Red cedar trees were the only kind of Christmas tree my wife knew growing up. Her father cut one every year from their farm. Now we are continuing that custom. We and our son and his family can now harvest young red cedar trees from the original fence row trees at Christmas time. All of us and neighbors make wreaths and other Christmas decorations from the blue-berried boughs of the old red cedars. The berries are quite attractive (see photo)  and the foliage has a heavenly aroma.

We’ve noticed of late that cooking magazines are carrying recipes for meat sauces that use juniper berries for flavoring. Junipers other than red cedar have bigger, fleshier berries and serve that purpose better. But red cedar berries could also work, I’m thinking. It would just take three times as many berries as the recipe calls for. Some books say  that red cedar berries are “slightly toxic,” but I’ve eaten them on occasion and not suffered any ill. Nor have zillions of birds. Gin, as you know, is flavored with juniper berries, and I imagine there are lots of folks who would say that gin is “slightly toxic” too. Hmmm. I wonder if I could distill gin from red cedar berries?
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See also Peach Trees Light Up The Old Hen House – And Vice Versa
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Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: Gene Logsdon
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