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Life Among the Red-cedars: Beautiful and Bizarre

Updated: Jan 29, 2018

As I strolled along my road this winter, I admiring a row of Eastern Red-cedars dark against the snowfield behind them, I startled a mixed flock of cardinals and chickadees that had been busy in the conifers’ branches. They flitted noisily across my path to more cedars on the opposite verge. Red-cedars often take advantage of our landscapes of neglect: roadsides, fence rows, old scruffy fields. The birds, who plant them there, reap many benefits from Indiana’s only common, widespread native conifer—as do a host of other creatures.

Members of the Cypress family, Red-cedars (Juniperus virginiana) are cousins to the more northerly Common Junipers that make up so many overgrown foundation shrubberies. Wandering through my neighborhood Red-cedars, I see that most of them are female, bearing the waxy blue fruits that we refer to as juniper berries, but that are actually fleshy cones (look closely and you can see the tightly overlapping scales). I also spot a male tree here, bearing innumerable minute pollen cones—so many that they give the tree an overall tawny cast.

Unlike the acid-loving pines and spruces we plant in southern Indiana, which often die prematurely because they’re ill-suited to our alkaline clay soil and climate, Red-cedars thrive here. Hardy and adaptable, they can be found in swamps and under deciduous trees, but are sun-loving and drought-tolerant. They grow not only in old fields, but in challenging environments such as limestone glades or atop limestone cliffs.

Indeed, if you have a prairie or meadow planting, or you maintain a glade ecosystem, Red-cedars may become the woody encroachers you love to hate. They are tough pioneer trees, leaders in the succession from meadow to forest. On prairies they were once kept down by frequent wildfires—unlike most other conifers, many of which are fire-dependent, Red-cedars are not even fire-resistant.

The Eastern Red-cedar is home to many captivating critters. Amid the dense boughs of this roadside hedgerow I find an empty praying mantis case adjacent to the curious marvel of a cedar bagworm house, a tapered silk cocoon shingled with leaf bits cut from the tree. The grub-like female bagworm never leaves this camouflaged chamber, not even to mate: conjugation with the winged male transpires through the bag’s door flap.

Behind these insect wonders a coppery growth clasps a shoot: the fascinatingly grotesque and aptly-named cedar-apple rust, now shuttered in dormancy. Warmer, wetter months stir it into weird life: gelatinous orange tentacles (telial horns) protrude and lengthen, releasing spores that damage apple and crabapple trees. If you grow these fruit trees, it’s best to avoid planting the Red-cedar nearby. If Red-cedars exist in your area already, do some research on rust-resistant apple tree varieties before planting your orchard. Otherwise, take some time to examine this funky, freaky fungus.

Cedar apple rust, in winter dormancy (above). In warm wet weather the dimples will become openings through which spore-bearing telial horns, gelatinous when fresh, emerge. Thanks to Jan Thornhill for the image below, and for her fascinating blog on fungi:

The Eastern Red-cedar also supports pretty birds and butterflies, if that’s your thing.

If you espy a dainty green-flecked butterfly nectaring at your flowers in summer, you can thank the Red-cedar for providing the food for its larvae, the Juniper Hairstreak caterpillar. But good luck locating this cat; it so cunningly mimics the green hue, scale pattern and attitude of the cedar shoots that it virtually disappears among them. Even more cryptic is the Curve-lined Angle moth caterpillar; visually searching for it, reads one field guide, “is essentially futile”. Other caterpillars hosted by Red-cedars are the Variegated Midget and the jauntily-named Juniper Geometer.

Juniper Hairstreak caterpillar and butterfly. Thanks to Jim McCormack for use of these photos. Check out his informative and entertaining blog on Ohio wildlife:

If you hear a bustling in the juniperous hedgerow, it may be juncos settling in amongst the boughs for a winter’s night. Red-cedars stand up well to wind and snow, and their erect, dense forms provide vital shelter for overwintering birds and small mammals; come spring, they harbor songbird nests. In the breeding season I hear the ascending buzz of the prairie warbler as I pass these trees; the diminutive black-streaked yellow birds nest not in open prairie but in shrubby old fields and glades, and Red-cedars are often indicative of their presence.

Male Prairie Warbler. Photo by William H. Majoris, Wikimedia Commons

Now, back to those juniper “berries”: plenty of birds not only relish them, but rely on them in wintertime--including turkeys, robins, bluebirds, and yes, the breathtaking Cedar Waxwing. Twelve days in the gut of a waxwing, followed by a lie-in over the next winter, and the juniper seeds are scarified, stratified, and good to go.

A Cedar Waxwing forages for Red-cedar fruits.

Cedar waxwings pass fruit back and forth--in this case a juniper "berry"-- as part of their bonding activity. Thanks to Mark Reinig for permission to use his cedar waxwing images; view more of his wildlife photos at

There are many Juniperus cultivars available, but the best support for wildlife is the straight, wild species endemic to your local region. Just be aware of the caveats mentioned above, and that Eastern Red-cedars are fast-growers that require elbow room. Smaller trees transplant more successfully, and it is recommended that you plant during the warmer months, so the tree has time to develop roots before a frost. Otherwise, the needles, unable to receive adequate moisture, may suffer from freeze damage.

Meanwhile, consider an outing to Cedar Bluffs or The Cedars, two wonderful nature preserves just south of Bloomington, and enjoy Indiana’s signature conifer.


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