Skip to content

What’s wrong with the red cedars?

2012 March 8
by Robert

Male pollen-bearing, cone-like structures are now visible on red cedars. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
This is the time in our changing seasons when we might become alarmed that some of our red cedar trees are diseased or otherwise sickly. And no wonder, as we observe many of the common red cedars, Juniperus virginiana, covered with what appears to be some kind of reddish-colored fungus or outright dead foliage.

Take a sigh of relief in knowing these reddish specimens are merely the male plants in full spring-flowering mode. You see, like holly trees, the cedars come to us as separate male and female plants. What we are seeing now, appearing like reddish foliage, is the bursting forth of countless tiny, male pollen-bearing, cone-like structures. They are so plentiful on some trees that they cover the entire leafy surface. Many of the ones I’ve observed closely during the past week have already dispersed their clouds of fine pollen and, amazingly, those little empty cones still cling to the trees following recent torrential rains.

In contrast, the female trees, some of them still bearing mature bluish juniper berries, retain a healthy green appearance. Even with a hand lens, the miniscule female flowers, waiting for windborne pollen from the males, are barely discernible. Once pollinated those tiny flowers, lacking petals, develop green berries that slowly mature to become visible in the fall.

Female flowers are barely discernible on red cedar. Photo by Ken Moore

A little later in the spring, another alarming-looking phenomenon, cedar apple rust, appears on the cedars. During wet, warmish days, some of the cedars bearing 1- to 2-inch round, hardened galls, become ornamented with bizarre bright-orange, jelly-like horns, which produce spores that infect nearby apple trees. In return, the apple tree responds with fungal spores that re-infect the red cedar to produce new galls. Cedar trees are not harmed, but the apple tree is often defoliated and the fruit rendered worthless.

Folks with apple trees, especially those with apple orchids, strive to eliminate cedar trees from apple tree proximity to insure tasty, good-looking apples.

Otherwise, common red cedar is very valuable. Not only is it a fine native tree that can thrive on bare dry soils, but it is valuable as a commercial wood, with old-timey cedar chests and long-lasting fence posts coming quickly to mind. Cedar chips for alternative indoor moth protection are a weekly commodity at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, and many Native American-style flutes are made of cedar wood.

In addition, the evergreen habit provides important shelter and nesting for birds, and the berries are valuable nourishment for many animal species. It is the single host tree for the lovely Juniper Hairstreak butterfly.

Red cedar is sacred in Native-American culture. Cherokees only burned the wood on ceremonial occasions, believing the smoke expelled evil spirits. Medicinal uses of all parts of the tree for all types of ailments are well documented.

Male flowering red cedar (left) looks diseased next to a female tree (right). Photo by Ken Moore

It is hard to resist passing a cedar tree without smelling the scale-like leaves and tasting a berry or two. And it’s comforting to know the dramatic spring appearances are normal in nature’s seasonal cycles.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

Comments are closed.