Eastern Red Cedars and Christmas Past


Our grown children were scattered hither and yon this Christmas, so Rose and I downsized Yuletide with a raggedy Eastern red cedar, instead of a sculpted Fraser fir. Meanwhile, I stayed merry and bright in a larger sense. I made the rounds in a Santa suit leavened with a puffy pillow.

We dug a cedar (Juniperus virginiana)from our Salvisa farm. It had unmistakable charm—even if I was the only one who thought so. There were obvious advantages to our little tree. It was a blessing to be able to lean over and place the angel on top of a three-foot tree instead of climbing a rickety stepladder to crown the angel on an eight-foot store-bought tree. We also avoided the fuss and drama of untangling fifteen miles of lights and replacing a thousand blown bulbs. None of that was Santa’s business, anyway. He had children waiting for his seasonal meet and greet.

Santa passed up the customary team of reindeer for a get-around ride in an all-electric Chevy Bolt. The Bolt’s range, on a full charge, is only 200 miles and change. Santa drove back and forth between Louisville and Salvisa.

But Santa had a hard time keeping his eyes on the road. The 50-mile drive passes thousands of Eastern red cedars as common as winter mud and as variable as snowflakes. There were fat ones, short ones, some pencil-thin, and all kinds in between.

My preferred Christmas tree has long been a Fraser fir grown on tree farms in the high mountains of North Carolina. The Fraser Fir is often called the Cadillac of Christmas trees. These cultivated trees are trimmed tighter than a Victorian corset, and the forest-scented, dark green needles grow on limbs strong enough to hang an anvil.

Cedars at Berry Hill. Frankfort, Kentucky

Still, I’ve grown partial to the red cedar. It’s more like the Chevy Corvair of Christmas Trees. (I once owned a used 1965 Corvair and loved the car Ralph Nader claimed was “unsafe to Drive at Any Speed.” I drove the wheels off the rust bucket and sold it for $185, ten dollars more than the purchase price.)

Like the Corvair, the Eastern red cedar never really caught on. Nowhere, in gardens, was the cedar comparable to its  juniper counterparts. But why was the North American Eastern Red Cedar so scarce in landscapes? It’s hard to fathom, though it probably has some connection to the human obsession with symmetry, the rage for order. 

North American range of Juniperus virginiana. USDA image.

Mike Dirr, the legendary woody plants expert, and former University of Georgia horticulture teacher, described the species as “a tough, irrepressible green soldier that can prosper where few plants can even survive.”

“…irrepressible green soldiers that can prosper where few plants can even survive.” Louisville, Kentucky.

The late J.C. Raulston, a hugely popular teacher at North Carolina State University, once had a trick final exam question for his graduate level course, Physiology of Landscape Plants. ‘”Name a specific tree which meets the following requirements for a given landscape — can be grown from USDA Hardiness Zone 2 through 9, drought tolerant, tolerant of high or low pH soils whether loose and gravely or compacted, minimal pest problems, salt and wind tolerant for beach conditions, evergreen, attractive fruit, long lived, tolerates high winds and has a solid root system to prevent “wind throw,” propagates easily, is easy to nursery transplant and establish in the landscape, and is rapid growing when young.”’ 

Cedar selections, planted by Louisville tree activist Mike Hayman, on Cedar Hill in Seneca Park.

A few students, out of frustration, took a wild guess: a plastic plant, they thought. Raulston answered: “Not correct as it does not grow rapidly when young!” These bright kids hadn’t given much thought to Eastern red cedars. But how could they miss the beauty of this native evergreen and its attendant winter show-offs— the robins, cardinals and cedar waxwings feeding on cedar berries?

Black Friday, Internet Monday and the holidays were here and, then, gone. 

The cedar berries on the farm are being picked clean.

I re-planted the little cedar tree on the farm and Santa took his suit to the dry cleaners.


  1. I also love these trees! They are common here in SE Michigan but they won’t grow in shade. So few of them will make it in my conifer woods (non-native conifers planted in 50s by former owners that are all now slowly dying due to climate change stressing them and their being invaded by bacteria and fungal diseases).

  2. Back in another century this was the Christmas tree of choice for my family. Bountiful and free, they were usually cut along the shore of a local creek or marsh. They are itchy to decorate, but smell wonderful.

  3. Wonderful homage to what many think of here as a “weed tree”. We used one for our Christmas tree, too! It fills the house with a holiday scent, but oh so prickly; extra credit to the member of the household brave enough to string the first, inner strand of lights.

    Red cedars are remarkably various. My cousin has a huge one down the hill from her front door; every few years it’s so loaded with berries that it looks like a blue spruce. One of my favorite forms is abundant along I-77 between Parkersburg, WVa and the Ohio border: Fastigiate, inky green, and shorter than average — perfect for gardens. Every time we go by I imagine an Appalachian Filoli using them with redbuds and dogwoods…

    • Is there an Appalachian Filoli, though, in reality? Or a West Virginian Villa Montalvo? You’ve got me missing the South Bay Area now.

  4. I enjoyed this. I have always liked Eastern Red Cedars. The seedlings truly come up everywhere and thrive anywhere. My garden is small, but I have a ‘Brodie’, trained as a two-ball topiary, that I love a lot.

  5. I planted an Eastern Red Cedar 5 years ago, partly because it was supposed to be deer resistant and partly for all those other qualities you mentioned. It was coming along nicely, but starting to outgrow it’s protective wire cage. Then this fall one of the resident young bucks used it as a scratching post and alas, I don’t expect it to survive.

    • Pat, don’t give up. The bucks work a few our trees every fall. I cut back American chestnut and a blue ash close to the ground last year and they bounced back. Not so sure you can cut juniper back to bare wood, but I’d leave it alone and see what happens next spring. I’m betting it comes back!

  6. Truly an underused and underappreciated species. We’ve been encouraging the seedlings that come up in the shrub border and along the edge of the woods around our house. The birds appreciate the extra cover and I use the greens for holiday designs bringing that glorious aroma into the house.

  7. My mother felt cedars were the only true Christmas tree. Hard to come by in Santa Barbara, but when she moved to South Carolina she could have her cedars again. They are vicious trees for decorating and undecorating but their perfume is wonderful and to me, the scent of Christmas.

  8. Allen SantaBush,
    A terrific read — fun as always and so informative. Checking the map and finding Colorado on it, confirmed that these are indeed the scrappy low evergreens that grow in a now-vacant field nearby that was part of an old small farmstead. Now suburban, of course. I will appreciate them more now. And you do look so handsome in your suit! Thanks as always for a great read. Happy New Year to all.

  9. I was happy to see a large grove of these cedars planted at the entrance to Dulles Airport in Virginia, some years ago. They are all individual, and yet recognizably related.

  10. Allen, you look fabulous in red velvet! And the white Chevy Bolt was THE perfect acccessory! And what a great example for the re-use generations out there, that you left it outdoors and re-planted it where it came from.
    I had never heard the story of JC Raulston’s exam question. I love it. The berries are the best part. You can always tell how the rainfall has been while driving down the highways. When you can see the blue-grey berries dirivn by at 70 mph, you know the rain has been good. Thank you for another enjoyable article!

  11. Another feature of Eastern Red Cedar is the bark as they age – beautifully textured and softly colored! There were some beautiful examples on my in-law’s farm. We have one in our current garden that gets a spectacular orange fungus infestation some years; doesn’t seem to do any harm to the tree and weird and wonderful while it is there.


  12. I love this tree so much I planted it in the spot where my new neighbor moved in and immediately cut down a beautiful blue spruce which grew halfway into my yard. He hated the height. So, I planted a cedar in that spot, then planted 4 emerald sentinels cedars which I highly recommend for their small height and use as a screen. (Ultimately, this new neighbor moved out, so I bought his house and rent it out for diversification. I’m surprised he sold it to us. I came to gardening through my anger at him for removing that tree, so I’m actually thankful to him now.) The cedars promptly killed my beautiful hawthorn (rust) so never plant any near rust-susceptible species anywhere close to them. The birds love the tree for perching and safety, the caterpillars love to use them in the pupa stage.
    Emerald Sentinels: http://plants.oaklandnursery.com/12130001/Plant/911/Emerald_Sentinel_Redcedar/
    My sentinels ( here you can see how they are a nice screen next to the typical cedar to the left.): http://www.amazon.com/photos/share/jLz9mFFuym1cJQwSzTturRKXQpF1ZAChL3WjVjZbb9C

  13. thoroughly enjoyed reading about your native cedar Christmas tree. My favorite Christmas tree in my childhood was a misshapen but appreciated, self-harvested red cedar that was banished to serve out Christmas season in only my room. They grow where I don’t want them (definition of a weed?) but they are a reliable ubiquitous plant that evokes many memories.


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