The eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which grows across much of the eastern United States, is not a true cedar, but is actually a juniper. It is common in old fields where woody plants are beginning to take over the open land. In fact, it is one of the first trees to invade a field or disturbed area in what is known as “ecological succession.”
This evergreen’s older branches are covered with overlapping dark green scales, while newer branch tips have sharp needle-like leaves. The bark is a lovely reddish-brown and peels off in thin strips that are a perfect addition to many bird nests in the spring. The tree’s heartwood is very aromatic and resistant to decay. Cedar chests and closets protect garments by repelling hungry clothes moths, while cedar fence posts stand for years and years, defying rot.
The eastern red cedar is shade-intolerant; it thrives in full sun. Taking advantage of open field habitat, it can grow 40 to 50 feet tall, with a diameter of one to two feet. But ecological succession will continue and eventually, over many decades, shade-tolerant species will grow beneath the red cedar and then overshadow it to create a forest.
While it “has its day in the sun,” the eastern red cedar provides important summer nesting sites, nest material, and year-round roosting sites, as well as shelter from severe winter weather for many species of birds. Its small waxy blue berries (actually cones) provide a significant food source for several species, including Bobwhite, Mourning Dove, Cedar Waxwing, Robin, Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, Mockingbird, Purple Finch and Northern Flicker. (The Cedar Waxwing gets its name from its fondness for cedar berries.) In return, the birds disperse the red cedar seeds in their droppings. Those deposited in open fields will germinate to continue the cycle of ecological succession.