Red Cedar – Juniperus virginiana

Red Cedar – Juniperus virginiana
Family Cupressaceae
Also commonly called Cedar Tree, Juniper,
savin, cedar apple, pencil cedar, or Virginia red cedar.

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Eastern Red Cedar

Red cedar is a slow-growing, narrow-leaved evergreen growing in a narrow pyramidal form to 45 feet. Native to North America east of the Rocky Mountains, and isolated populations in Oregon, this common tree was revered by Native Americans for its many and varied uses. Red cedar is a pioneer species and often volunteers in old fallow farm fields and waste places [1].

The evergreen tree is shaped like a pyramid or column, with reddish-brown to grayish colored bark that is fibrous and shedding. Branches are usually reddish-brown. Leave are opposite, simple, green or blue-green, closely appressed and overlapping the leaf above, scale-like, and 0.2-0.3 cm (1/16-1/8”) long or needlelike and 0.6-1.2 cm (1/4-1/2”) long. Male and female cones are on separate trees. The staminate (male) cones are yellowish-brown, papery, solitary at the tips of branchlets, ovoid to ellipsoid, and 0.2-0.4 cm (1/16-1/8”) long. The ovulate (female) cones are solitary at the tips of branchlets, dark blue or bluish-purple, waxy and berrylike, 0.4-0.7 cm (3/16-1/4”) long. The female cones ripen from September through October. There are 1-3 seeds per cone. Red cedar seeds are yellow-brown and round, 2-4 mm in diameter, ridged near the base, and sometimes shallowly pitted.

Eastern Red Cedar
This specimen is nearly 60 years old.

Red cedar is used by many Native American tribes for incense in purification and ritual. For them, red cedar symbolizes the tree of life and is burned in sweat lodges and in purification rites. The Blackfoot made a tea from the berries of the red cedar to stop vomiting. A Blackfoot remedy for arthritis and rheumatism was to boil red cedar leaves in water, add one-half teaspoon of turpentine, and when cooled, rub the mixture on affected parts. The Blackfoot also drank a tea made from red cedar root as a general tonic; mixed with Populus leaves this root tea became a liniment for stiff backs or backache.

Eastern Red Cedar foliage and berries

The Cheyenne steeped the leaves of the red cedar and drank the resulting tea to relieve persistent coughing or a tickling in the throat. It was also believed to produce sedative effects that were especially useful for calming a hyperactive person. Cheyenne women drank the red cedar tea to speed delivery during childbirth. The Cheyenne, along with the Flathead, Nez Perce, Kutenai, and Sioux, made a tea from red cedar boughs, branches, and fleshy cones, which they drank for colds, fevers, tonsillitis, and pneumonia.

As a cure for asthma, the Gros Ventres ate whole red cedar berries or pulverized them and boiled them to make a tea. They also made a preparation from the leaves mixed with the root, which they applied topically to control bleeding (Kroeber 1908). The Crows drank this medicinal tea to control diarrhea and to stop lung or nasal hemorrhage. Crow women drank it after childbirth for cleansing and healing.

The young leafy twigs of the red cedar were listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia until 1894 as a diuretic, and distilled oil of red cedar has been listed as a reagent since 1916.

Red cedar wood is very durable, and was used for lance shafts, bows, and other items. Flutes made from red cedar wood were highly regarded by the Cheyenne. Cedar boughs were used for bedding. The Menomini wove mats of cedar bark. The mats were used for roofing temporary structures, for partitions, floor mats and wraps.

Red cedar and other junipers are important to wildlife throughout the country. Their twigs and foliage are eaten by hoofed browsers, but the main attraction for wildlife is the  fruit. The cedar waxwing is one of the principal users of red cedar berries, but numerous other birds and mammals make them an important part of their diet.

In addition to their wildlife food value, cedars provide important protective and nesting cover. Chipping sparrows, robins, song sparrows, and mockingbirds use these trees as one of their favorite nesting sites. Juncos, myrtle warblers, sparrows of various kinds, and other birds use the dense foliage as roosting cover. In winter, their dense protective shelter is especially valuable.

Eastern Red Cedar Bark

1. USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center, Carlinville (IL) Field Office, & Missouri State Office
2. Red cedar, Morton Arboretum acc. 751-55-2, photos © Bruce Marlin

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Family Cupressaceae – Redwood, Cypress, Arborvitae, Juniper
There are thirty (many monotypic) genera and 142 species in the family Cupressaceae, now widely regarded as including the Taxodiaceae, previously treated as a family. The Cupressaceae are found in the fossil record as far back as the Jurassic Period, about 210 million years ago. Cupressaceae Index | Tree Encyclopedia | Trees Index