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. Scientifically known as Juniperus virginiana, 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!

In this article:

Eastern Red Cedar Facts

  • Hardy from USDA zones 2-9. Check your USDA zone here.
  • 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
Height / Mature Size30-70′ (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 Hairstreak
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!

Eastern Red Cedar Native Range

The native range of the Eastern Red Cedar is basically anywhere in North America East of the Rocky Mountains.

Click on image to enlarge

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

The Eastern Red Cedar will grow to a height of 60′ (20 m). Its shape is typically conical, oblongoid, or ovoid 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]

Eastern Red Cedar 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

Eastern Red Cedar Leaves

Young Eastern Red Cedar trees (< 4 years old) will produce linear awl-shaped leaves that resemble needles that are 1/8″-1/2″ long. 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.

Male vs Female Eastern Red Cedar Trees

Eastern Red Cedar has both male and female trees (dioecious), making cones that produce pollen on the males and seed cones for the females.

On Eastern Red Cedar trees, the male cones are yellow and roughly 1/8″ long and 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.

As a general rule, 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 system of Eastern Red Cedar is a shallow, spreading root.

How to grow and care for Eastern Red Cedar

Eastern Red Cedar on a sloped woodland border

Sunlight Requirements

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.

Soil Requirements

Eastern Red Cedar grows well in what is typically considered ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ soil conditions such as clay, rocky, or sandy soil. Rocky soil, 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.

Moisture Requirements

Eastern Red Cedar prefers dry or medium-moist soil conditions that drain well. It grows well on slopes and exposed areas.

Cedar trees will not grow well in moist conditions.

Native habitat for Eastern Red Cedar

The Natural Habitat of Eastern Red Cedar are slopes, limestone bluffs, 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

Eastern Red Cedar care

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.

Lifespan

Eastern Red Cedar trees can live for up to 900 years. So, depending on where it grows, it could outlast almost any other tree.

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

The Eastern Red Cedar grows approximately 2′ per year in optimum conditions. That means in 10 years you can have a large evergreen tree for landscaping or a windbreak.

However, studies have shown that abandoned fields can be converted into Eastern Red Cedar forests in as little as 40 years without intervention. [1]

Maintenance

There is no ‘required’ maintenance of Eastern Red Cedar. As a native, if it is planted in a location that matches it’s growing preferences (full sun / well-drained soil), it should thrive. 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 grow 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 outer coating makes up seventy-five percent of the weight of the seed. [3] Chemical scarification via citric acid can uniformly soften the seed coat. This is an important process as research has found that seeds passed through birds digestion are twice as likely to germinate as seeds subjected to normal scarification methods. [5]

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.

Wildlife, Pests, and Disease

Fauna Associations of Eastern Red Cedar

Pollinators

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 caterpillars of these insects feed numerous species of birds throughout the growing season.

Birds / Mammals

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.

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

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

How Eastern Red Cedar seeds are dispersed naturally

The fruit consists of flesh surrounding several seeds. Research by biologists Holthuijzen and Anthonie in the 1980’s, showed single Cedar Waxwing bird needs to consume approximately 1159 fruit to meet their daily energy requirements, and that the seeds pass through the bird in 12 minutes. [6] That is a lot of seeds to scatter in the area!

Further research showed that the germination rate of the seed dispersed by birds was almost twice as high as manually de-pulped seed. [5] So, the passing of the seed through the digestive canal of the birds really helps with the scarification of the seed.

Eastern Red Cedar spreading aggressively

The Eastern Red Cedar can spread aggressively in open areas, fields, and pastures through colonization via seed dispersal from birds. Due to the large number of species of birds and the amount of Red Cedar fruits they consume, a large number of seeds will be distributed every year. (See above section on seed dispersal!)

Technically, no plant can be invasive in an area where it is native – it just isn’t logical. However, it can be aggressive.

And, as stated before about the high seed consumption rate by Cedar Waxwings and other fruit-eating birds, combined with the quick digestion time (12 minutes), that means a lot of seeds will fall in the general area of an established Red Cedar. When you think about how birds like to perch on fence posts, then it seems even more logical why Eastern Red Cedar trees tend to follow fence lines!

Rot Resistance of Eastern Red Cedar

The Eastern Red Cedar is one of, if not THE best wood for outdoor applications such as fence posts, furniture, and decking. An 8-year long study in Wisconsin showed that Eastern Red Cedar performed better than all other specimens in terms of checking, cupping, and general rot-resistance. [9] The conclusion is that Eastern Red Cedar is better than Western Cedar, Southern Yellow Pine, Poplar, and it even preformed better than Black Locust.

Uses for Eastern Red Cedar

Landscaping / Windbreak

Eastern Red Cedar trees are often used for general landscaping or windbreaks. Early pioneers would plant seeds to make natural windbreaks in the great plains. The large shape and evergreen leaves make Eastern Red Cedar effective at stopping or slowing down wind.

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.

Eastern Red Cedar companion plants

To figure out if a plant will grow well with Eastern Red Cedar, you need to look to species that prefer or can tolerate the same or similar growing conditions. So, this would be full sun, well-drained soil.

If selecting other trees to pair with Eastern Red Cedar, one should remember that it is a pioneer species that generally tops out at 60′. So, if you select trees with taller heights, eventually they may shade out the Cedar, causing it to die. The list below contains trees and shrubs that can grow with Eastern Red Cedar, but will not shade it out.

Trees that grow well with Eastern Red Cedar

  • Evergreen species
  • Flowering deciduous hardwoods and shrubs
  • Smaller deciduous shrubs
    • Winterberry
    • Bear Oak or Scrub Oak

Plants that grow well under Eastern Red Cedar

There are several native plants that can be grown underneath Eastern Red Cedar (assuming it is pruned high enough). Each of these likes well-drained acidic soil, and will do well in the shade. Obtaining seed or plants for some of these could be challenging though.

  • Prairie Alum Root
  • Teaberry, or Eastern Teaberry
  • Partridge Berry
  • Spotted Wintergreen
  • Foam Flower
  • Fly Poison

Lumber from Eastern Red Cedar

With dark shades of red, Eastern Red Cedar is some of the most beautiful lumber 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.

Recently live-edge slabs of Eastern Red Cedar have begun being used in making epoxy-wood tables.

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.

Food

The berries, or fruit of Eastern Red Cedar is edible. It can be eaten raw or cooked. However, the flavor is quite strong. It is most commonly air-dried and then ground into a powder and used for flavoring.

Do not consider the berries of Eastern Red Cedar as a food staple though, as they are a diuretic (increased production of urine). So, like most medicinal or edible wild plants, they should be used sparingly as a spice or medicine.

Berries of Eastern Red Cedar can be harvested after several years on the tree. Initially they emerge as green, then by year 3 should turn a dark blue/purple. They are about 1/4″ diameter (6 mm), and resemble a small blueberry. You can harvest the berries by laying a tarp under the tree, and shake or rake the berries.

Eastern Red Cedar berries for gin

Remember the scientific name for Eastern Red Cedar? Juniper virginiana is the same ‘juniper’ that is used to flavor the distilled liqueur gin. The small female fruits are used as the primary flavoring. The berries are harvested by shaking the branches over a tarp or canvas, or just by simply hand-picking.

Native American Uses of Eastern Red Cedar

There are over 106 uses of Eastern Red Cedar by Native Americans spread out across 19 different tribes [7]. Some common uses included:

  • Cold remedy (infusion)
  • Cough medicine – decoction was taken to treat coughs
  • Dermatological Aid for itchy skin, and other skin conditions
  • Insecticide, as it was known to repel many insects
  • Rheumatism. A decoction of twigs would be used.
  • Berries eaten for food
  • Decoction of needles used as a wash for Cholera
  • Cedar boughs were used to ‘ward off lightning’
  • Food – berries were used as flavoring

The wood was also used for furniture and carving.

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

[6] – Anthonie M. A. Holthuijzen, and Curtis S. Adkisson. “Passage Rate, Energetics, and Utilization Efficiency of the Cedar Waxwing.” The Wilson Bulletin, vol. 96, no. 4, Wilson Ornithological Society, 1984, pp. 680–84, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4162001.

[7] – North American Ethno-Botany Database. Retrieved 13NOV2021. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=Juniperus+virginiana

[8] – ER Lawson, Russell M. Burns, and Barbara H. Honkala; Silvics of North America, Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture, p.242, 1990. Silvics https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/misc/ag_654/table_of_contents.htm

[9] – Kirker, Grant, Amy Bishell, and Stan Lebow. “Above and in-ground performance of naturally-durable woods in Wisconsin.” In: McCown, C.; Branton, K., eds. Proceedings, One hundred fourteenth annual meeting, American wood protection association. Birmingham, AL: American Wood Protection Association: 272-277. 2018.

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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