When I was a small child my family lived on a farm in southern Shelby County. Each year at Christmas my father would take us into our woods to choose a Christmas tree. Then he would drag home a small young cedar that filled our house with an unmistakable aroma. Many people who grew up in Kentucky likely share a similar memory.
Cedar trees are considered pioneer species and are often one of the first to inhabit areas having experienced recent disturbance. Cedars will grow in a wide variety of soil conditions, including rocky soils, but they really thrive in sunny open areas. For this reason you’ll often see them take over abandoned farm land or other areas that have been recently cleared. They are prolific along roadways throughout the state.
Aerial view showing Eastern Red Cedars that have begun to grow in a recently cleared area near the entrance to the Coppiced Woods Trail in Beckley Creek Park.
In the full sun cedar trees grow quickly and are said to add one inch in diameter per year of life. However, over time, forest composition shifts as cedar trees are replaced by hardwoods such as oaks and hickories which fill in the canopy and shade out the sun-loving species.
More than a wonderful Christmas tree, the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) adds beauty to the landscape and is a valuable resource for Kentucky’s wildlife. Being one of the only evergreen trees native to Kentucky, eastern red cedars serve as a valuable winter resource to numerous forest residents. They provide a place to nest and hide from predators for birds and small mammals, and the green foliage serves as a food source in late winter when resources are scarce. The fruits of the trees are popular foods for several birds such as cedar waxwings who help to disperse the seeds.
But woodland creatures aren’t the only ones who benefit. These same berries, often called juniper berries, have a distinctive aroma and are used as the flavoring agent in gin. Not only is cedar wood highly valued for its durability and beauty, but the volatile oils serve as a natural insect protectant making it an excellent material for use in outdoor structures such as barns, fences and furniture. Cedar chests keep our blankets and sweaters safe from moths while infusing them with that warm winter aroma.
So when you are enjoying your Christmas tree or are out exploring the park this winter, take a moment to stop and smell the cedars.