Tree of the Month • May 2016

Eastern Redcedar •  Juniperus chinensis

by: Gilbert A Smith, ISA certified Master Arborist

photos by Lesley Bruce Smith

photos by Lesley Bruce Smith

You may remember me saying in the past that there were no native evergreens in Northeast Illinois when European settlers arrived. If there were a native evergreen it would be the Redcedar. It’s really not a Cedar, it is a Juniper but it looked like a European Cedar tree in the 1500’s when explorers first named it. It’s also not a native. An inhabitant of the toughest places in the eastern forest it can’t stand prairie fires set by Mother Nature or the Native Americans. As soon as farmers plowed the prairie and suppressed fires, the Redcedar headed West of Lake Michigan. 

The reason you could call it native, or naturalized, is that it seeds itself in N.E. Illinois. Have you ever seen a Pine, Spruce, or Fir seedling sprout up in the Chicago area? Nope? That’s because they don’t do well here, and the seeds know it. But the Redcedar loves our plowed fields, strip mines and disturbed places. 

You may not think you’re familiar with Redcedar but if you think of Hamster bedding, Cedar chests, the flavor of Gin, or if you’re old enough to have sharpened a pre-synthetic pencil and breathed in that unforgettable spicy scent you have smelled and tasted Redcedar. 

The good thing about Redcedar is that it is a tough, lovely, smallish evergreen tree (about 25 feet tall by 10 feet wide). It has a sinuous bark, spicy smell, and it is great bird habitat and food. In fact the Cedar Wax Wing gets its name from Redcedar. These two species live in perfect symbiosis, the bird eats the berries, digests and spreads the seeds, and thereby cuts the seedling germination time in half.  

On the negative side, Redcedar hosts the diseases, Cedar-Hawthorn Rust, and Cedar-Apple Rust. If you have an Apple that has little rusty red dots on the leaves that cause the tree to defoliate in August you have experienced first hand a piece of American history. In the early 1900’s the Virginia and West Virginia legislatures allowed orchardists to cut down any Redcedars within one mile of their orchards without recompense regardless of private property rights. “Cedar or Cider” was their war cry.

You don’t have to plant it, the Cedar Wax Wings will take care of that. 

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