Eastern Red Cedar 101 – Juniperus virginiana


The Eastern Red Cedar is a coniferous evergreen tree that grows 20-70′ tall in full sun and medium moist to dry sites. This tree is native to Eastern North America and has a wide conical shape making it an excellent windbreak.

The Eastern Red Cedar also has high wildlife value. Birds eat the fruit as they are high in carbohydrates and fat. Deer browse the foliage. And over 40 species of insects feed on the Eastern Red Cedar! A truly important plant for our ecosystem!

Facts

  • Hardy from USDA zones 2-9. Check your USDA zone hereOpens in a new tab..
  • The Scientific Name of Eastern Red Cedar is Juniperus virginiana
  • Eastern Red Cedars native range is all States and Canadian Provinces East of the Rocky Mountains
  • Numerous birds build nests or roost in Eastern Red Cedar
  • Many insects feed on the plant, and many birds/animals eat the berries
  • Eastern Red Cedar will grow 1-2′ per year in full sun and medium moisture that drains well
  • Do not plant Eastern Red Cedars close to your home, as they can catch fire more easily than other trees.

Eastern Red Cedar Reference Table

Common NameEastern Red Cedar, Red Cedar, Red Juniper, Virginia Juniper
Scientific nameJuniperus virginiana
Height30-70′ (10-23 m)
Spacing/Spread8′-25′ (3-9 m)
Growth Rate12″-24″ per year (15-30 cm)
Light RequirementsFull sun – Full Shade
Soil TypesClay, Loam, Sandy – almost any. It prefers poorer soils with rock, gravel.
MoistureMedium to dry soil, well draining
MaintenanceNone required
Typical UseWindbreak, forest, general landscaping
Fauna Associations42 different species of insects feed on Eastern Red Cedar.
Larval HostJuniper HairstreakOpens in a new tab.
Sowing Depth1/2” (12 mm)
StratificationPlant in summer, needs warm moist followed by cold moist
Native RangeUSDA Zones 2-9
NotesEastern Red Cedar has high wildlife value!

Why you should grow Eastern Red Cedar trees

  • They have a moderate growth rate of 1-2′ per year (15-30 cm)
  • When full grown they are shapely attractive evergreen trees
  • Eastern Red Cedar will attract birds to your home, as they nest in the tree and feed on the berries
  • They are fragrant trees, smelling of fresh potpourri
  • An ecologically important tree, it provides food for over 40 insects, which in-turn are food for other insects, birds, and animals
  • They are generally disease resistant

Eastern Red Cedar Identification and Physical Description

Reaching heights of over 60′ and is typically conical, oblongoid, or ovoid in shape depending on it’s surrounding conditions. It is an evergreen coniferous tree, so like a pine tree it will stay green year round. And as an evergreen, it can convert light to energy/growth year round. [1]

Trunk/Bark

The trunk of Eastern Red Cedar is generally straight with much branching. Rarely divided at the base, the bark is fibrous and red/brown when young, turning gray with age. You can actually peel the bark off in strips.

The multiple branches of an Eastern Red Cedar

Foliage

Young trees (< 4 years old) will produce awl-shaped leaves (needles) which are linear and 1/8″-1/2″ long (3-12 mm). After 4 years of growth it will produce scale-shaped leaves which are smaller, being 1/16″-1/8″ long. The color will range from deep green to blue/green in summer, to pale green/yellow in winter depending on conditions.

Eastern Red Cedar has both male and female trees (dioecious), making cones that produce pollen on the males and seed cones for the females. The male cones are yellow and roughly 1/8″ long. These cones occur at the tips of the branches.

The female cones are green when young and blue when mature, and are roughly 1/4″ diameter. They resemble small blue berries. The female cone will hold 1-3 seeds that are ~ 1/8″ long.

Male trees will be taller and have larger diameter trunks than female trees, indicating that significant energy is required to produce the female cones. [2]

Root

The root of Eastern Red Cedar is a shallow, spreading root.

How to grow and care for Eastern Red Cedar

Eastern Red Cedar on a woodland border

Eastern Red Cedar prefers full sun, medium-dry soil that is well drained. As this tree is native to Eastern United States, if it receives these conditions it should be quite happy and grow well.

It particularly does well in what is typically considered ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ soil conditions. Rocky, gravely, and limestone bluffs often contain healthy populations of Eastern Red Cedar. I frequently see them in the driftless region of the Midwest and clinging to cliffs and rocky areas in Pennsylvania.

Native environment for Eastern Red Cedar

You can find this tree growing on limestone bluffs, or shallow soil. It will also grow in forests, hillsides, and upland woods. Thick stands of cedar can often hold deer and other small game in the winter.

Cedars growing on a slope of rocky poor soil

How to care for

Not much care is required. Just provide this tree with conditions that it prefers, and you will have a thriving tree to be enjoyed by future generations.

How long will it take to grow a full-sized Red Cedar?

With growth rates of 1-2′ per year, Eastern Red Cedars generally take 10 years to reach heights that are considered sightly for landscaping uses.

However, studies have shown that abandoned fields can be converted into Eastern Red Cedar forests in as little as 40 years without intervention. []

Maintenance

There is no ‘required’ maintenance of Eastern Red Cedar. However, you can prune/shape the tree to your liking.

Pests and Diseases

As noted, deer will occasionally eat the foliage. Use Liquid Fence or bird-netting to deter them when the trees are young. Liquid Fence is best in the warm season, while during the winter bird-netting is most effective.

Additionally, Eastern Red Cedar trees are susceptible to some fungi. To minimize the chances of this afflicting your tree, plant in full sun and good exposure to wind.

How to Eastern Red Cedar from seed

You can collect the ripe blue berries in the fall. Keep them in a breathable container in a cool dry place until late Spring / Early Summer. It should be noted that even in ideal conditions germination rates do not often exceed 50%. Normal conditions yield germination rates of less than three percent [3]. So, plan accordingly.

Scarification should be performed on the seed as the hard outter coating makes up seventy-five percent of the weight of the seed. [3] Chemical scarification via citric acid can uniformily soften the seed coat.

Young saplings that were initially shaded by meadow grasses

Seeds from Eastern Red Cedar require a warm / moist stratification followed by a cold/moist stratification. So, squeeze out the seeds and plant them in a mixture sphagnum peat moss and sand about 1/2″ deep / 12 mm. And plant out side in an area that will receive morning sun and afternoon shade. Plant seeds in May-July so that seed stratification requirements are met.

Early the following Spring, monitor the site for any germination. Young seedlings need to be shaded during mid-day sun in the hot summer months. Top dressing of compost can also help provide adequate access moist (not wet) soil, and nutrients.

Uses for Eastern Red Cedar

Eastern Red Cedar trees are often used for windbreaks. Early pioneers would plant seeds to make natural windbreaks in the great plains.

But these shapely evergreen trees can also make a very nice addition to any lawn or suburban landscaping. It should be encouraged over other more common landscaping trees that are invasive or non-native. The sight of a Red Cedar blanketed with snow is beautiful enough for postcards and a great example of Mother Nature’s art.

One other use of Eastern Red Cedar is that the lumber is some of the most beautiful in North America. Generally it isn’t desirable as the numerous knots make if a bit difficult to work, but for crafts and hobbyists it can be used to create beautiful projects.

Heat treating or kiln-drying the lumber can help increase surface quality. But this comes at a trade off to strength. [4]

A chunk of Eastern Red Cedar lumber that I planed smooth by hand. Gorgeous.

The sawdust and wood shavings can also be used to make potpourri.

Fauna Associations of Eastern Red Cedar

More than 40 different species of butterfly, moth, and other insects feed on Eastern Red Cedar trees, making it a valuable part of the ecosystem.

The berry-like cones are also eaten by many birds and mammals including Black Bears, Chipmunks, Fox, Opossum, and mice. Deer also browse the foliage. Birds dispersing the seed contribute to the spread of Eastern Red Cedar. [5]

Numerous birds use Eastern Red Cedar for nests including, Blue Jays, Cooper’s Hawk, Finches, Mockingbirds, Robin, Sparrows, and Warblers. You also have various birds roosting in this tree such as owls, hawks, and songbirds.

A path lined with Eastern Red Cedar in January. Beautiful, and valuable for the birds and other animals.

References:

[1] – Ormsbee, P., Bazzaz, F.A. & Boggess, W.R. Physiological ecology of Juniperus virginiana in oldfields. Oecologia 23, 75–82 (1976). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00351216. Retrieved 24SEP2020

[2] – S. A. Vasiliauskas L. W. Aarssen. Sex Ratio and Neighbor Effects in Monospecific Stands of Juniperus Virginiana. Ecology Society of America, Volume73, Issue2, April 1992, Pages 622-632. https://doi.org/10.2307/1940768. Retrieved 25SEP2020

[3] – Dean A. Pack. After-Ripening and Germination of Juniperus Seeds. International Journal of Plant Sciences. Volume 71, Number 1, Jan., 1921. https://doi.org/10.1086/332788

[4] – P. Kasemsiria, S. Hiziroglub, S. Rimdusita. Characterization of heat treated eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana L.). Journal of Materials Processing Technology, Volume 212, Issue 6, June 2012, Pages 1324-1330 Retrieved 25SEP2020

[5] – Anthonie M. A. Holthuijzen and , Terry L. Sharik. The avian seed dispersal system of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Canadian Journal of Botany, 1985, 63(9): 1508-1515, https://doi.org/10.1139/b85-208 Retrieved 25SEP2020

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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