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What is an Eastern Red Cedar?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 16, 2024
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The eastern red cedar, or Juniperus virginiana, is an evergreen tree native to the eastern portion of North America, and it is the most commonly found evergreen in that region. From Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, the tree can be found growing wild in each of the United States east of the Great Plains. It also is a popular landscaping choice and can be used as a windbreak or privacy hedge.

This tree not a true cedar tree at all but instead is a variety of juniper. Its many thin branches that curve sharply upward are covered in dark green, scaly leaves that might turn reddish or brown in the winter. Female trees produce blue juniper berries. The eastern red cedar grows in a dense conical shape, with specimens measuring 15–50 feet (5-15 m) tall. Some canopies of these trees can spread up to 30 feet (9 m) wide.

In gardening and landscaping, eastern red cedars are often used in groups. The trees can be planted closely together in a row to make a tall screen, providing shade and privacy without sacrificing aesthetics. These trees grow well together and do not compete excessively for resources, and they can be pruned as needed. They also can grow in rocky, sandy or other poor soil. Rows of trees are often planted as windbreaks to control erosion and wind damage.

Lumber taken from the eastern red cedar is a red, fragrant and strong wood. The wood stands up to the elements and resists rot, making it useful for fence posts. It frequently is used to make furniture, especially chests, dressers and similar pieces. Moths are repelled by the scent of eastern red cedar, making the wood ideal for clothing storage. It is widely used to make pencils as well.

Other portions of the eastern red cedar are widely used as well. Juniper oil extracted from the tree’s twigs and leaves is used in perfume manufacturing and aromatherapy. The cones are used to flavor gin, and decoctions made from the berries and leaves have been used as traditional herbal remedies.

Left unattended, eastern red cedars can become invasive, choking out other plant species and dominating the landscape. Quick growth and dense canopies prevent sunlight from reaching smaller plants. The tree is especially vulnerable to fire, and in the past, wildfires controlled the tree’s spread. With the expansion of developed land, deliberate controlled burning and cutting are used to keep red cedar populations down.

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