One of our more versatile trees is eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). It’s adaptable, resistant to decay and parts of it are edible and have medicinal uses. Red cedars are evergreens, so they provide protection from winter winds. They’re also important lumber sources and they grow fast.
Eastern red cedar actually isn’t a cedar at all. It’s a juniper. Also, some people consume the blue structures they call fruits or berries. The problem is they aren’t fruits at all. They are cones, since junipers belong to a division of plants related to pines called Gymnosperms. Unlike pines, their foliage consists of overlapping scales not needles.
These medium-sized fragrant evergreens grow well on dry sandy or rocky infertile soils with an extremely wide pH range. They also are a pioneer species, meaning they will take over open areas, but will be displaced when taller species shade their canopies. Some call them pencil cedars because of their upright growth habit.
Most trees that require full sun have dense canopies and red cedars are no exception. For this reason and their relatively uniform shape they are a common Christmas tree species. I have never used them for that. I prefer needled trees.
I do think they make gorgeous lumber. The grain is a rich red color and the fragrant smell is unmistakable. Historically the wood has been used to line closets and cabinets to discourage moths. It is also a common fencing material because the wood is so durable in contact with soil. Young trees also make long lasting fence posts.
If you’ve ever been around any mature specimens you might have noticed the pea sized blue cones. They are edible in small quantities and make an acceptable tea or can be used as a flavoring in soups. Make sure they are a dark blue and slightly soft before consuming them and only consume a few at a sitting.
Cones are also used for flavoring gin and a French liqueur called chartreuse. Some use them to flavor sauerkraut. They are mildly antiseptic and have been used to treat worms. Herbalists have prescribed chewing them to soothe mouth ulcers and making tea from them to combat colds and rheumatism.
Foliage is sometimes used medicinally, but in very small quantities. Fresh young twigs are a diuretic. Fragrant essential oils are extracted and added to soaps, perfumes and for aromatherapy. Many people use wood shavings as pet bedding.
Eastern red cedar is no friend to apple growers. Cedar apple rust is a serious apple disease. When the fungus grows on red cedar it looks like a cluster of bright orange worms. As it matures and dries it resembles big wads of chewing gum. Other than that it causes few problems.
On apples, the disease causes leaves to speckle and fall off. Much of the fruit does too. Fruits that persist are blemished and usually unmarketable. Both species must be present for the fungus to complete its life cycle, so a common control is to eliminate nearby red cedar trees.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.