The Red Cedar Tree (Juniperus virginiana)

Height: 30 to 60 feet, but also grows as a shrub   

Evergreen/Deciduous: Evergreen  

Lifespan: Relatively long lived; occasionally reaching 450 years of age or more

Fall Foliage: Green  

Range: The bulk of the eastern U.S. and Canada, as far west as the Great Plains  

Typical Habitat: Variable, but often in fairly rugged, exposed, gravely areas; also capable of surviving around significant salt exposure

The Eastern Red Cedar: A Hardy Pioneer    

Though it may stick around for several centuries, the eastern red cedar is an early successional species. It’s well adapted for living in the harsh lands it’s so often found. It is a plant (it sometimes remains shrub-like, particularly in the harshest locations) that loves the sun and tolerates pretty dry conditions, so it is one of the first trees to usher in the gradual shift from field to forest.

Eastern red cedars are popular with landscapers and homeowners, partially because they aren’t terribly fussy, assuming plenty of sun exposure. They are not, however, well-adapted to fire, so they present safety issues when planted near residences.

Eastern Red Cedar Identification: Tips & Tricks

Eastern red cedars present enough clues that intermediate to advanced nature lovers can pick them out quickly (and often at great distance). The overall color and growth habit of the foliage is somewhat distinctive, habitat often plays a clue, and the fruit – sometimes visible as early as June, even if it doesn’t ripen until the fall – all combine to make this an easy spot for those familiar with the forest (and the disturbed areas in which it thrives).

But novice tree lovers may struggle given several of the species’ characteristics. For example, the leaves often take on two distinctly different appearances: Some look like scaley while others look like sharp, short needles.

Accordingly, the unfamiliar will be best served by looking for two things: the young leaves – which are short and prickly – alongside older leaves, which will appear scale covered, and the bright blue, berry-like cones.    

The Eastern Red Cedar: Additional Information

Want to learn more about the eastern red cedar? Check out these awesome resources to broaden your understanding of this important species.

  • U.S. Forest Service: A comprehensive review of the species, including tons of info on the species’ response to wildfires.
  • North Carolina State University: A thumbnail sketch of the eastern red cedar, along with a lot of great photographs.      
  • Morton Arboretum: Plenty of great information, including tips for planting and growing the red cedar.

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