If you are out on any pastures or old farm fields you may notice an evergreen tree with small blue berries at this time of year. It is not a prolific tree for our counties like over in eastern Tennessee or down east in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, but nonetheless it is a native tree to our area and beneficial for several reasons.
Eastern red cedar, sometimes called pencil-cedar, is the most widespread juniper in the eastern United States. The tree was once the primary wood used to make pencils but has been replaced with cheaper woods and synthetic materials.
Eastern red cedar is found in all states east of the Great Plains, from southern Canada to Florida and west into Texas. It is primarily located in low mountains and Piedmont regions. It grows well along fence lines and dry ridges in both Jackson and Swain counties. This species can grow in a variety of soil types, but prefers moist, well-drained soils with a limestone base. It is most common in sunny, upland woods, or moist hammocks. It also is found in dry, shallow, rocky areas, such as old fields and ridges.
Wildlife benefit greatly from red cedar trees, using them heavily as a source of refuge, shelter and food. The dense branches provide a hiding place for many birds, while the bark that peels off in long, flexible strips provides nesting material for squirrels and other small mammals. White-tailed deer browse on red cedar vegetation, but the most important food source coming from these trees is the seeds, which are covered with a fleshy, berry-like layer. These seedcoats provide food for foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, mice, ground birds and many songbirds. The Cedar Waxwing birds that frequent our mountains later this summer can devour the berries off a single tree in a day.
Eastern red cedar heartwood is prized for its pleasant fragrance and insect-repellent properties and is frequently used to line closets, wardrobes or cedar chests. It is attractive, fine-textured, and easily worked and is commonly used to make woodenware, gifts, and novelty items. Large trees are harvested commercially for paneling, poles, fence posts and logs for cabins. Sawdust and wood chips are used in kennel bedding to minimize odors and repel fleas. Cedarwood oil is extracted from the trees as a fragrance base for soaps and cosmetics. So go out into the fields and old farm fields of your counties and see if you can locate an eastern red cedar. If you do and are lucky enough to locate a cedar with the small berries, go crush the small, blue berry seeds and smell Christmas during July.
Red cedar is frequently grown as a landscape tree to provide natural fencing, soil stabilization and wind protection. The trees withstand extreme drought, heat and wind.
The only downside of the eastern red cedar is that it causes an alternate host for cedar apple rust, which can kill apple trees. Don’t plant apple trees in close proximity to red cedars or remove eastern red cedars before planting an apple orchard. You can remove the “orange galls” from the cedar trees and/or treat apple trees with fungicides. For more information on cedar apple rust, contact either Jackson or Swain Extension at 586-4009 or 828-488-3848.
Rob Hawk is extension director for Jackson County.