It is in the wintertime, when the world is stark and bereft of greenery, that evergreen trees are most appreciated, and while north Mississippi may not be a land of boreal forests, the Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, a local native evergreen, makes a valiant effort to soften the austerity of the winter landscape.
The common name for this tree implies that it is a cedar, but there are no cedar trees native to North America. (The cedars of Lebanon of Biblical fame are native to Lebanon, and the magnificent Cedrus deodara grows in the Himalayas.) The Eastern Red Cedar tree is actually a juniper, as its botanical name clarifies. Of course, both cedars and junipers are conifers. Botany, at times can befuddle and frustrate even those with a propensity for genius!
Regardless of genus or species, the beauty of this prolific evergreen tree was not lost on the early settlers, and because it was readily accessible, the Eastern Red Cedar was used in formal landscapes and gardens. Almost every locale has a Cedar Hill or a Cedar Grove, and almost every cemetery has an old cedar tree that stands sentinel over the dear departed. Cedar trees can be found on almost every abandoned, old home site, and this humble conifer of the South was just about the only Christmas tree available for past generations.
In antebellum days, the landed gentry returned home from their grand tour inspired to replicate the villas and gardens they had seen in Southern Europe. As a substitute for the conical Italian cypresses that lined avenues, allees and formal gardens, they used the local and available Eastern Red Cedar. Andrew Jackson did this at the Hermitage, and, of course, at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, the approach to the house is lined with ancient cedar trees.
The pioneers and small farmers of more modest circumstances also utilized the Eastern Red Cedar. The cedar wood was plentiful and resistant to rot, so it was used for fence posts. Also, the aromatic wood repelled insects, and subsequently, many a hope chest was built of cedar. The wood was also perfect for pencils and a local industry was born.
Nowadays, the Eastern Red Cedar is seldom used in landscape designs, and sophisticates eschew it as a proper Christmas tree. Farmers have metal fence posts, and pencils are made from synthetics. In Texas it is considered to be an invasive species that surreptitiously crossed the Mississippi River.
The Eastern Red Cedar is a marvelous native species to use as a natural screen. Leland Cypress trees are frequently used for this purpose, but they are susceptible to disease and are short-lived. Cedar trees provide refuge and food for a variety of wildlife, especially birds. And, of course, they are beautiful. A drive down the Natchez Trace Parkway lined with dark green, majestic cedars will help one appreciate this native tree. Why, pray tell, has this native conifer fallen out of favor?
The Earth Lady by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal Home & Garden section once a month.