Red Cedar, lopsided, scraggly and beautiful

I don’t know.  Red cedars are described as long-lived but none of the books I have say how long one lives.

That old red cedar in our front yard is not a pretty tree.  It’s crooked.  The top lists to the north.  A limb toward the top on the south side is bigger and sticks out farther than any other limb.  Beneath that limb there’s a space, a gap, before there’s another limb.  All around the trunk the limbs are irregularly spaced, though the greatest irregularity is on the south.

Most people would call our old cedar unsightly, even an eyesore.  I call it scraggly.  But in our yard where dandelions and selfheal grow because we don’t use herbicides the old cedar seems right in place.

Besides, that old tree is a favorite with the birds.  Blue jays, mourning doves, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers all often land in that tree before swooping down to the bird feeders in front of our house.  Many of them fly from the feeders back to that tree, frequently with their bills full of bird seed.  There they perch and eat, pecking at the sunflower seeds to open them first.  It’s as if the birds feel safer perched among the clusters of evergreen needles than on our feeders.

Needles and scales.  A red cedar has two kinds of leaves, using the term leaves as botanists do to include needles of pine and spruce and fir.  The cedar has short, sharp-pointed needle-like leaves and it has little flat, oval, scale-like leaves.  The two aren’t together.  A spray of branchlets has needles or it has scales.

The fruits of red cedar are as unusual as the leaves, though they are all of the same shape.  They’re little and they’re dark blue and they look like berries.  But they’re actually cones, each a ball of tiny, fleshy scales.  That makes red cedar a conifer and in the same class as pines and spruces and firs.

Robins, finches, mockingbirds, yellow-rumped warblers, and many more birds eat red cedar cone-berries. Cedar waxwings relish them. Our old cedar doesn’t bear fruit every year but when it does I can be certain it will be visited by a flock of cedar waxwings.

The red cedar is a common tree from southern Canada south to northern Florida and west into the Dakotas and Texas. It appears in open areas that are not mowed or sprayed or burned or otherwise disturbed for a few years.  It pops up especially along fences and near other little trees.  That’s because birds plant red cedars.

Birds digest the fleshy parts of red cedar cone-berries but not the seeds.  Those pass through.  Wherever a bird that has fed on cedar fruits perches it deposits the seeds.  Since birds commonly perch on saplings in weedy fields and on fences that explains the young cedars that sprout and grow along fences.

It’s a cedar in common parlance, that big old red cedar in our front yard, as are the little evergreens growing along our pasture fences.  But to a botanist it’s a juniper.  It’s scientific name is Juniperus virginiana.

Crooked, lopsided, scraggly it stands, that big, red cedar-juniper in our front yard.  But I don’t look to see the shape.  I look to see blue jays and chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, cedar waxwings and other birds among the evergreen needles on its branches.  I think of it as a place of birds and of seeds that the birds spread about the countryside.  To me that old red cedar is a beautiful bit of nature.

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