On a windy cold Thanksgiving afternoon, we did something nutty. After tossing buckets and shovels into our pickup we drove north until we spotted greenish foliage popping through the road ditches dry grass.
There, we rescued six red cedar trees that are now at home in our yard.

A Hardy Tree

Few American trees have such a love-hate relationship with people as the red cedar, which is actually a Juniper. Perhaps it’s unpopular because of the plant’s amazing adaptability. Sure, it needs full sunlight but given that it thrives in heat, salty roadsides, and terrible soil it is one hardy plant! Even stiff grass competition that snuffs out other baby trees doesn’t seem to bother it.

Red cedars thrive from the Great Plains eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. In many places they are small bushes, but sometimes the tree grows big enough to interest loggers. The  aromatic wood  is used to craft cedar chests, closet linings, and even pencils. Fence posts made of it last for decades.

Why Ranchers and Farmers Dislike Cedars

Ranchers curse cedars because they spread in pastures. Cattle don’t like dining on prickly cedar twigs, and within a decade or two cedars replace the grassy food that cows love with a green desert of scrubby trees. 

What’s to Love About Red Cedars

But, a cedar grove isn’t really a desert.   Birds, especially cedar waxwings, love eating their tiny blue berries, and dense stands of cedars protect many species of wildlife from howling wind, searing sun, and predators.  

There’s more. We live in Cedar Rapids, a city named for the rugged trees that grow in rocky bluffs over the Red Cedar River. They’re small and twisted but some are over 400 years old.

We planted our cedars on the edge of our property where they will form a screen from the wind and passing car headlights. They also will give us privacy, and be a  safe home for birds that visit our feeders.

In mid-December, we’ll return to the road ditch and cut a six-foot red cedar for our Christmas tree. Cedars are scraggly and unsymmetrical, but we don’t put our tree up in the house. It will grace the Holiday season on our back deck. Pouring a few cups of sunflower seeds in its foliage creates a  living stream of ornaments as goldfinches, chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches come and go.   

For information on red cedars and many other trees visit the website of the National Arbor Day Foundation.

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