Common Name: Eastern redcedar, Red cedar, Red juniper, Cedar apple, Virginia red cedar – Cedar is from kedros, the name for the tree in Greek, which probably is derived from kadru, Sanskrit for tawny. Cedar trees were well known in antiquity and their aromatic wood was renowned throughout the Mediterranean region. The bark is red-tinted, the “red” distinguishing it from the lighter colored white cedar. The tree is indigenous to the eastern half of North America as the counterpart to the western redcedar.
Scientific Name: Juniperus virginiana – The generic name is the Latin word for juniper, a shrubby evergreen of the northern latitudes, also well known in antiquity. The etymology is unclear but it may originally have come from a word for reed or stem to describe the twiggy leaf structure. The tree was first encountered by European naturalists in the colony of Virginia.
Potpourri: The Eastern redcedar is the most widely distributed conifer in the Eastern United States. It has two starkly contrasting reputations. On the positive side, it has historically been considered one of the most important indigenous trees in North America with multiple uses among native peoples. As a curative agent, a ready source of wood, and an insect repellent, it permeated Indian culture which was largely adopted by the pioneering Europeans as they moved inland and learned to endure the same hardships. Red cedar was therefore an equally important mainstay of early settler homesteads east of the Mississippi River, sought after for its valuable commodity assets. In the modern era that spans the last century, it has taken up a more sinister role as a scruffy roadside eyesore, rising to near invasive status in many disturbed areas. It occupies monoculture stands along major highways, challenged only by the equally prolific Ailanthus/tree of heaven. However, there is a qualitative difference between an invasive alien and a widespread native. Introduced plants like Ailanthus invade new habitats free of local predators and devoid of competition to dominate the sun’s energy and the soil’s nutrients. Indigenous plants like Eastern redcedar that have evolved to thrive on meager resources in hardscrabble environments are honest competitive pioneers.
Eastern redcedar also has a split personality by name ― it is a juniper and not a cedar. However, it is literally a family affair since both cedars and junipers belong to Cupressaceae, the resinous evergreen family of trees and shrubs commonly called Cypress. With about 130 species worldwide, cypresses are characterized by scalelike leaves in flattened twigs, unlike the needles of pines, hemlocks, and firs.  The cedar name preference was likely a result of English colonists whose religious affiliations would have favored a common tree name with more biblical resonance. While the juniper is mentioned in the bible, the cedar is literally foundational; King Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem from the Cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). A cursory inspection at the fruiting time of year would have revealed the error; junipers have “berries” and cedars do not. In reality they are not berries but small, round, dark blue cones ― verisimilitude by design. Since both berries and cones are the fruiting bodies of their respective plants and carry the all-important seeds, convergent evolution favoring propagation is evident.
Conifers have cones and evergreens are always green. However, not all conifers are evergreen. The larch and the bald cypress are deciduous, losing all their needles annually. Conifers are gymnosperms of the order Pinales. Gymnosperm literally means “naked seed,” distinguishing them from the angiosperms with seeds encapsulated in a developed ovary ― fruit like an apple or peas of a pod. The angiosperms are the most advanced land plants, their survival enhanced by sweet tasting fruit attracting animal herbivores that spread reproductive seeds to germinate in nutrient-laden fecal droppings. Naked seed plants, lacking fruited ovaries, usually produce robust cones. Cones come in two types: male pollen cones and female seed or ovulate cones. Most conifer trees are dioecious, with a single tree producing both male and female cones.  The Eastern redcedar is monoecious in having separately sexed trees. Male tree pollen cones are ephemeral, forming upright structures called staminate strobili or conelets that release clouds of wind-borne pollen in spring of which a vanishingly small percentage will land on the ovaries of downwind female tree ovulate cones. The tough, woody ovulate cones of most conifers are a palladium for the development of the fertilized seed on which the future of the plant ultimately depends, their naked seeds dispersed and carried away by the wind or dropped to the ground below. However, in the case of the Eastern redcedar, green scales form as an outer protective coating over an unusual non-rigid, berry-like cone. As the season progresses, the color of the “berry-cone” changes from greenish white to a distinctive blue when mature, mimicking the progression of flowering plant berries from green to red or blue-black.  Not all evergreens have cones either. Holly, mountain laurel, and rhododendron retain non-needle leaves perennially. The cedar cum juniper is a full-fledged evergreen conifer … both attributes have purpose. The environmental factors that contribute to the prevalence of evergreen over deciduous growth are related to sun and soil nutrient resources. At high elevations and northern latitudes, the growing season insolation is insufficient for the annual regrowth of leaves in time to absorb enough sun energy for sustainment. Equally, poor soils with diminished nutrients cannot support annual leaf regeneration. Nature’s answer to not being able to grow a new set of leaves every year is to keep them so that the tree is always, that is ever, green. The preponderance of narrow leaf shapes like pine needles and cedar scales is related to both water retention, as reduced surface area equates to less evaporation, and resistance to storm and snow weather damage in winter when other trees are bare. Evergreen trees do replenish their greenery like their broadleaf cousins, but they do so incrementally rather than all at once. The needles of pine trees are replaced about every four years while those of cedars and junipers are on a roughly ten-year cycle.  Eastern redcedar thrives in marginal soil habitats, encroaching on grasslands that are essential to livestock operations. For example, it is estimated that over seven hundred acres of rangeland are lost every day in Oklahoma due to Eastern redcedar.  While this has understandably raised the hue and cry of the cattle-beef industry, anything that cuts back on the contribution of methane belching cows to climate change is at worst equivocal. Long term research studies have revealed that “encroachment by J. virginiana into grasslands results in rapid accretion of ecosystem C and N in plant and soil pools.”  In other words, “invasive” red cedars not only sequester carbon but crowd out cows, doubling their greenhouse gas reduction efficacy.
There is one characteristic of red cedar range expansion that weighs against its otherwise positive environmental credentials. As an integral partner in a ménage à trois with a fungus that involves apple trees, cedars are complicit in crop damage. Fungi developed some peculiar relationships with plants as they evolved in the dark backwaters of the ecological web. One of the most interesting is heteroecism or two host parasitization. Eastern redcedar trees are linked to apple trees by a fungus aptly named Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae, which is commonly called cedar apple rust. The biennial cycle starts as the fungus forms mycelial galls on the tips of red cedar branches. The mycelium is the main body of the fungus. In spring, hornlike projections grow outward from the gall bearing billions of red-orange spores. The windborne spores are carried aloft and afield ― a miniscule percentage will land on apple (and crabapple) trees, where they germinate. Yellow spots appear on the apple tree’s fruits and leaves the following spring from which a second set of spore bearing tube-like structures release spores that germinate only on red cedar leaves. That one fungal species requires two alternating hosts to survive is not unique. Barberries and wheat are conjoined in a similar arrangement with wheat rust.  Why and how this duality evolved is a matter of some conjecture, but it is quite true that the fungus can be eradicated by getting rid of one of the two hosts, as was done with barberry. Due to the expansive nature of red cedar, it is impractical to remove trees. Fungicides and planting rust-resistant apple varieties are the primary remediation practices.
The seeds of Eastern redcedar enclosed in “angiosperm-like” cones mimic the berries that attract animals, especially birds. The cedar waxwing is named for its preference of these “juniper berry” fruits. Field studies have found that it takes about twelve minutes for the juniper berry and its seeds to pass through the avian digestive tract and that the seed thus “processed” has a germination probability that is three times that of a berry-cone seed that simply falls to the ground (as all uneaten cones eventually will). It is in this manner that Eastern redcedar extends along rural fence lines which serve as roosts for engorged cedar waxwings. Juniper berries are also a popular food source for many other birds including robins, ruffed grouse, and turkeys as well as small mammals like raccoons, skunks, and opossums.  The evident desirability of Eastern redcedar cones by diverse animal populations is indicative of some evolution of the former to suit the latter. With high concentrations of fat and fiber, moderate levels of calcium, and, most importantly, substantial carbohydrates for metabolic energy, they are excellent sources of nutrition. However, just because animals eat them does not mean that humans can. Juniper berry edibility is tenuously acceptable according to which of the thirteen different species of juniper is ingested. However, juniper berries are mostly too resinous for human tastes, suitable only for seasoning or perhaps for tea when roasted and ground. The flavor of the berries is distinctive. The French name for juniper is genièvre from which gin, a liquor flavored with juniper berries, derives.
Eastern redcedar was widely used by Native Americans according to region and tribal customs. The leaves and twigs of the tree were steeped in water to extract chemical constituents as a ptisan, a natural tea administered orally for the treatment of respiratory ailments like colds and coughs by Cherokee, Cheyenne, Flathead, Nez Pierce, Sioux and the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. The aromatic properties of cedar were volatized by burning, the incense an important part of Kiowa prayer meetings, Lakota funerals, and a treatment to reduce Seminole anxiety. The wood, with its inherent resistance to decay and insect infestation, was used by Ojibwa for wigwam construction, Navaho for a war dance ceremony wand, and among various tribes for everything from musical flutes to canoes. The use of red cedar by American colonists based on Indian antecedents was well established by the 18th century as noted by Swedish botanist Peter Kalm in 1749 on occasion of his North American travels. He chronicled that it was among the most durable of all woods used in home and boat construction, and that “some people put the shavings and chips of it among their linen to secure it against being worm eaten,” the origin of the cedar chest.  Institutional medicinal applications of cedar became were well established by the 19th century; it was listed as a diuretic in the U. S. Pharmacopeia from 1820 to 1894. Oil of cedar, sometimes called cedarwood oil, has been included a reagent in the Pharmacopeia since 1916 and is used in aromatherapy and as an insect repellent. 
Juniperus virginiana is notably successful as a matter of natural resilience in its production of chemicals that protect it from everything from microbe attack to insect maceration. These properties, moderated by limited dosage, are the basis for its use to ameliorate human health by arresting bodily access by biotic invaders. One of its constituents is podophyllotoxin, the name derived from the genus Podophyllum peltatum commonly called mayapple, from which it was first isolated. It is currently prescribed for use as an antiviral topical treatment of genital warts with many emerging applications ranging from cancer and multiple sclerosis to arthritis and psoriasis.  There is also something to the documented use of the soothing smell of cedar as a treatment for anxiety by Seminole herbalists. Testing with laboratory mice has shown that cedrol, one of the constituents of cedarwood oil, produces anti-anxiety or anxiolytic effects measured by performance in maze behaviors. Physiologically, it increases the amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter known for its positive behavioral effects.  Cedar wood and juniper berries as insect repellent are equally valid according to recent research. The resinous exudate of its berries have antiparasitic and nematicidal (worm killing) properties and its wood resin is antibacterial.  Eastern redcedar/juniper is a tree for all seasons, but especially Christmas, with cedar apple rust ornaments to boot.
1. Little, E. The Audubon Field Guide to North American Trees, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1986, pp 305-315.
2. Wilson, C. and Loomis, W. Botany, 4th Edition, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1967. pp 549-570.
3. United States Forest Service database https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/misc/ag_654/volume_1/juniperus/virginiana.htm
4. Kricher, J. and Morrison, G. Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1988, pp 8-9, 279.
6. McKinley, D.; Blair, J. “Woody Plant Encroachment by Juniperus virginiana in a Mesic Native Grassland Promotes Rapid Carbon and Nitrogen Accrual”. Ecosystems. 1 April 2008 Vol. 11 No. 3: pp 454–468.
7. Stephenson, S. The Kingdom Fungi, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2010 p.182.
8. Barlow, V. “Eastern Redcedar, Juniperus virginiana”, Northern Woodlands, Winter 2004 https://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/eastern_redcedar_juniperus_virginiana/
9. Angier, B. Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 2008, pp 110-111.
10. Native American Ethnobotany Data Base. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=juniperus%20virginiana&page=1
11. Kalm, P. Travels into North America; Containing Its Natural History, and a Circumstantial Account of Its Plantations and Agriculture in General, with the Civil, Ecclesiastical and Commercial State of the Country, the Manners of the Inhabitants, and Several Curious and Important Remarks on Various Subjects. 1772. Translated into English by John Reinhold Forster. Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). London: Printed for T. Lowndes, No. 77, in Fleet-street.
12. USDA Plants Data base. https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=JUVI
13. Cushman, K. et al “Variation of Podophyllotoxin in Leaves of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)”. Planta Medica May 2003. Vol. 69 No. 5 pp 477–478.
14. Zhang, Kai; Yao, Lei “The anxiolytic effect of Juniperus virginiana essential oil and determination of its active constituents”. Physiology & Behavior May 2018 Vol. 189 pp 50–58.
15. Samoylenko, V. et al “Antiparasitic, nematicidal and antifouling constituents from Juniperus berries”. Phytotherapy Research. December 2008. Vol. 22 No. 12 pp 1570–1576.
4 thoughts on “Eastern redcedar”
Thanks for this one. I now realize that our crabapple tree, which has been suffering in recent years, is probably getting fungal spores from the redcedars that have grown from volunteers that appeared in our yard about 15 years ago. We yanow have a trio of full-grown redcedars on one side of the yard and a crabapple wasting away on the other side. Did the Nez Perce and other Native Americans of the west have access to eastern redcedar, or does the western species of cedar have the same medicinal properties?
Henry Petroski in his book “The Pencil” states that Eastern redcedar was the favored wood for mechanized pencil manufacture. Apparently this led to an eventual shortage of cedar lumber- in many areas trees as small as 5″ in diameter would be harvested.
All of the references cited refer to Native Americans and the Eastern red cedar, which extends westward across the prairie, stopped only by the Rockies. The western red cedar is confined to a rather narrow range in the Pacific northwest, where the tribes were much more oriented to oceanic resources. According to the USDA website, the Western red cedar has many of the same properties as the Eastern red cedar, so I would suppose that it could be used similarly. My guess it that either there is no record of use or they had many other resources and didn’t bother with a prickly tree.
I did run across the use of red cedar for pencils on several occasions. Thank you for pointing it out. I had meant to include that but got caught up in all of the other peculiarities of the tree. Its uses fell to third tier as part of the Native American discussion (and they did not use pencils)