Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern Redcedar

Eastern red cedar is a coniferous evergreen tree that is native to North America. The fruit of this tree, juniper berries, is an important food source for birds in the winter. The wood of the eastern red cedar is used in fencing as it is resistant to rot, and it is also used to line closets and chests since it also resists moths.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Juniperus virginiana, also known as eastern redcedar, red cedar, Virginian juniper, eastern juniper, red juniper, and other local names, is a species of juniper native to eastern North America from southeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and east of the Great Plains. Further west it is replaced by the related Juniperus scopulorum (Rocky Mountain juniper) and to the southwest by Juniperus ashei (Ashe juniper). It is not to be confused with Thuja occidentalis (eastern white cedar).

Juniperus virginiana is a dense slow-growing coniferous evergreen tree with a conical or sub cylindrical shaped crown that may never become more than a bush on poor soil, but is ordinarily from 5–20 meters (16–66 feet) tall, with a short trunk 30–100 centimeters (12–39 inches) in diameter, rarely to 27 m (89 ft) in height and 170 cm (67 in) in diameter. The oldest tree reported, from West Virginia, was 940 years old.

The bark is reddish-brown, fibrous, and peels off in narrow strips. The leaves are of two types; sharp, spreading needle-like juvenile leaves 5–10 millimeters (3⁄16–3⁄8 in) long, and tightly adpressed scale-like adult leaves 2–4 mm (1⁄16–3⁄16 in) long; they are arranged in opposite decussate pairs or occasionally whorls of three. The juvenile leaves are found on young plants up to 3 years old, and as scattered shoots on adult trees, usually in shade. 

The seed cones are 3–7 mm (1⁄8–1⁄4 in) long, berry-like, dark purple-blue with a white wax cover giving an overall sky-blue color (though the wax often rubs off); they contain one to three (rarely up to four) seeds, and are mature in 6–8 months from pollination. 

The juniper berry is an important winter food for many birds, which disperse the wingless seeds. The pollen cones are 2–3 mm (1⁄16–1⁄8 in) long and 1.5 mm (1⁄16 in) broad, shedding pollen in late winter or early spring. The trees are usually dioecious, with pollen and seed cones on separate trees, yet some are monoecious.

There are two varieties, which intergrade where they meet:

  • Juniperus virginiana var. virginiana is called eastern juniper / redcedar. It is found in eastern North America, from Maine, west to southern Ontario and South Dakota, south to northernmost Florida and southwest into the post oak savannah of east-central Texas. Cones are larger, 4–7 mm (3⁄16–1⁄4 in); scale leaves are acute at apex and bark is red-brown.
  • Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola (Small) E.Murray (syn. Sabina silicicola Small, Juniperus silicicola (Small) L.H.Bailey) is known as southern or sand juniper / redcedar. Its variety name means “flint-dweller”, from Latin silex and -cola. Habitat is along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from the extreme southeastern corner of Virginia, south to central Florida and west to southeast Texas. Cones are smaller, 3–4 mm (1⁄8–3⁄16 in); scale leaves are blunt at apex and the bark is orange-brown. It is treated by some authors at the lower rank of variety, while others treat it as a distinct species.

Eastern Red Cedar grows in a wide range of climatic and soil conditions. The tree is extremely tolerant of drought due to its extensive, fibrous root system and reduced leaf area. It can be found from droughty, rocky soils with few nutrients to rich alluvial soils with abundant moisture. However, Eastern Red Cedar is almost never dominant on such rich mesic sites due to intense competition with faster growing, more shade tolerant hardwood trees.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

A young eastern red cedar will do well growing in full sun to part shade, but as it matures, it will do best in full sun areas. Trees grown in less than the full sun that must compete for sunlight will settle into a low-growing shrub-like habit and exhibit a form expressed by more horizontal than vertical growth. If two trees compete, consider removing the smaller of the two to allow the more dominant one to benefit from the full sun as it establishes itself.

Temperature and Humidity 

The range of the eastern red cedar is immense, stretching from eastern coastal Canada south to the Gulf Coast of the United States. There are vast temperature differences in this large swatch of territory, but the eastern red cedar adapts to them all. The commonality is that the temperatures in its growing range never reach extremes. To keep your eastern red cedar healthy and happy, mimic its natural habitat and grow it in moderate temperatures in areas that do not push extreme limits. Keeping it in its happy zones of USDA 2-9 will ensure it thrives.

Watering

During its first few years getting established, your Eastern red cedar should be watered regularly. Soil should be kept moist, but not wet, and mulch can be spread around the tree. After the roots deepen, however, these trees are very drought tolerant and actually prefer dry soil. As long as you live in an area that’s not extremely arid, you should not have to do any supplemental watering.

Soil

Of least concern to an eastern red cedar’s overall vigor and health is the soil conditions it is planted in. The species does well in poor soils that others would not, which makes it able to thrive in the most intolerable conditions. When planted in good conditions, it prefers it will perform exceedingly well, establish itself quickly, and show a marked increase in growth rate. The tree’s most preferred conditions would be rich loamy, consistently moist, and well-draining soil. Extremely adaptable, the only condition the eastern red cedar cannot tolerate is standing water. Save constantly soaked roots; this species can deal with almost any soil.

Fertilizing

Eastern red cedar can thrive even when planted in very poor soil (their hardiness and ability to grow just about anywhere is one of the reasons they’re so popular). As such, fertilizing your eastern red cedar is almost never necessary. If you do want to give your tree a little nutrient boost, though, you can provide it with a slow-release, granular or powder, balanced fertilizer (e.g., 10-10-10 mix).

Repotting

Repotting must be performed periodically on your bonsai, eastern red cedar, when its root system has filled the pot.  If you can clearly see the roots coming out of the bottom of the pot, it’s time to repot your bonsai.

Generally, this means every 2-3 years for a deciduous tree and every 4-5 years for an evergreen.

Repotting should be done in mid-summer, when the tree is at it’s least fragile state.

The cedar bonsai tree, along with all of its soil, should be removed from the pot.  From there, you can trim away no more than 1/3rd of the root mass (1/4th is preferred.) 

Then you can repot the tree in the same pot, or give it a newer / bigger pot to thrive in.

After repotting, your eastern red cedar bonsai should be thoroughly watered.

Pests and Diseases

The eastern red cedar is luckily free from serious disease and pest issues. The only large concern that many will find to be an issue is that the species acts as an alternate host for a fungal disease, cedar apple rust. While this disease does little harm to the eastern red cedar itself, it can cause serious issues to trees in the Malus family, often causing leaf and fruit damage.

In early spring, fungal galls will emerge on the juniper tree that must be treated with a copper fungicide to prevent the spread of the disease to any susceptible trees nearby. Ultimately to be safe, all trees in the Malus family should be kept 500 to 1000 feet from any possible host.

III. Uses and Benefits 

The fragrant, finely grained, soft, brittle, very light, pinkish to brownish red heartwood is very durable, even in contact with soil. Because of its resistance to decay, the wood is often used for fence posts. Moths avoid the aromatic wood, and therefore it is in demand as lining for clothes chests and closets, which are often denominated “cedar closets” and “cedar chests”. If correctly prepared, excellent English longbows, flatbows, and Native American sinew-backed bows can be made from it. It is marketed as “eastern redcedar” and “aromatic cedar”. The best portions of the heartwood are one of the few woods that are suitable for making pencils, however the supply had so diminished by the 1940s that the wood of the incense-cedar largely replaced it.

Part of the commercially available cedar oil is produced by steam distillation from wood shavings. It contains a wide variety of terpenes. The three major components, alpha-cedrene, thujopsene and cedrol, constitute more than 60% of the essential oil. The fruits also yield an essential oil which contains mostly D-Limonene.

The oil derived from foliage and twigs has two main constituents: safrole and limonene. One minor compound is the podophyllotoxin, a non-alkaloid toxin lignan.

Native American tribes have historically used poles of juniper wood to demarcate agreed tribal hunting territories. French traders named Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which denotes “red stick”, from the reddish color of these poles. Some nations continue to use it ceremonially.

The Cahokia Woodhenge series of timber circles that the pre-Columbian Mississippian culture in western Illinois erected were constructed of massive logs of eastern juniper. One iteration of such a circle, Woodhenge III, which is thought to have been constructed circa 1000 AD, had 48 posts in the circle of 410 feet (120 m) in diameter and a 49th pole in the center.

Among many Native American cultures, the smoke of burning eastern juniper is believed to expel evil spirits prior to conducting a ceremony, such as a healing ceremony.

During the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, the Prairie States Forest Project encouraged farmers to plant shelterbelts, i.e. wind breaks, of eastern juniper throughout the Great Plains of the US. The trees thrive in adverse conditions. Tolerant of both drought and cold, they grow well in rocky, sandy, and clayey soils. Competition between individual trees is minimal, and therefore they can be closely planted in rows, in which situation they still grow to full height, creating a solid windbreak in a short time.

A number of cultivars have been selected for horticulture, including ‘Canaertii’ (narrow conical; female) ‘Corcorcor’ (with a dense, erect crown; female), ‘Goldspire’ (narrow conical with yellow foliage), and ‘Kobold’ (dwarf). Some cultivars previously listed under this species, notably ‘Skyrocket’, are actually cultivars of J. scopulorum.

In the Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma Ozarks, eastern juniper is commonly used as a Christmas tree.

This is the most widely used wood for making blocks for recorders. There are numerous properties that it possesses that make it uniquely suitable for this, such as good moisture absorption, low expansion when wet (so it does not crack the recorder head), and mild antiseptic properties.

Eastern red cedar is considered effective as a shelter-belt tree and for erosion control. Being coniferous, red cedar has dense evergreen foliage which makes it an ideal windbreak. The tree’s extensive root system allows it to survive drought, and helps to retain surrounding topsoil during dry, windy conditions.

Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) Details

Common name Eastern Redcedar
Botanical name Juniperus virginiana
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 30 ft. 0 in. - 40 ft. 0 in.
Width 30 ft. 0 in. - 40 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Blue