Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Despite its name, the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is actually a species of juniper rather than cedar. Eastern red cedars have two types of leaves depending on the age of the tree and/or the branch. Young shoots and seedlings have predominantly prickly leaves, while mature trees and branches have tightly overlapping scale-like leaves. In fertile soil, eastern red cedars can grow up to 60 feet tall, in a regular conical shape. In sandy soil common to coastal Cape Cod, these trees may never grow larger than shrubs and often have irregular shapes. Many of the eastern red cedars I observed today while walking along the barrier beach trails at Sandy Neck in Barnstable would barely taller than me. In areas like this, a combination of nutrient poor sandy soils that slow the tree’s growth and salt laden ocean winds that desiccate delicate leaves and new growth can leave eastern red cedars looking stunted and irregularly shaped.

Overlapping scale-like leaves of the eastern red cedar.

Stunted irregular shaped of an eastern red cedar growing at the edge of the salt marsh in Barnstable Harbor.

This time of year eastern red cedars are particularly noticeable due to the masses of blue berries clustered on their branches. The blue “berries” abundant on the branches this time of year are not actually berries at all, they are berry-like cones, which develop from the scales of the female flower that fuse into a fleshy pulp surrounding the bony seeds enclosed inside. Flowers of different sexes appear on different trees, just like American holly, common winterberry and green briar, so these fruits won’t appear on every tree. The berries start a pale green, becoming dark blue coated with a whitish waxy covering as the season progresses. They are eagerly eaten by a long list of birds, including the cedar waxwing that gets its name from its association with this tree. In such a way, the eastern red cedar’s wingless seeds gain an efficient dispersal mechanism.

Prominent blue berry-like cones.

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