Eastern Red Cedar, the Most Widely Distributed Eastern Conifer

Famous for Cedar Trunks, Christmas Trees and the Landscape

eastern red cedar tree
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), close-up, autumn. (Philip Nealey/Getty Images)

Eastern red cedar or Juniperus virginiana is not a true cedar. It is a juniper and the most widely distributed native conifer in the eastern United States. Redcedar (red and cedar can be spelled together or separate) is found in every U.S. state east of the 100th meridian, which is a geographic vertical map line separating east and west North America.

This hardy tree is considered a "pioneer" tree species and often among the first trees to occupy cleared areas, where its seeds are spread by cedar waxwings and other birds that enjoy the fleshy, bluish seed cones. Fence lines attract the birds and red cedar trees become the new wild "hedge."

The Eastern Red Cedar Tree Range

The red cedar range extends from southeastern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. To the west, native red cedar tree range only occurs east of the Great Plains but has been successfully spread toward the west by natural regeneration from planted trees.

In the absence of fire, eastern red cedar thrives and may eventually dominate mid-western prairie or forest vegetation. Pure stands of eastern redcedar are scattered throughout the primary range of the species. Most of these stands are on abandoned farm lands or drier upland sites. Fire is destructive to the tree and often controlled or eliminated from a landscape with the use of controlled burning.

The Hardy Eastern Red Cedar

The dense but attractive foliage growth makes eastern redcedar a favorite for windbreaks, screens, and wildlife-cover for large yards and landscapes. Red cedar's high salt-tolerance makes it ideal for seaside locations. Still, it is not recommended as a street tree where winter roads are salted because it can obstruct the view of traffic.

This tree does well in poor, compacted soils and is a good tree for land reclamation. It does well in areas that experience drought during the year.

Identification of Eastern Red Cedar

The evergreen red cedar is a small to medium tree that rarely exceeds 50 feet in height. Redcedar is single-trunked and the only native juniper that is upright and columnar. The bark has shedding thin strips, the seed cones are berry-like and glaucous (blueish), the leaves are scale-like and pressed tightly against twigs.

One other way to identify a red cedar is the presence cedar-apple rust and bagworms that commonly infest/infect eastern red cedars.

Uses of Eastern Red Cedar

Red cedar wood is highly valued as a wood for the fine-grained, decay resistant wood used to panel closets and split for fence posts. Other uses include making pails, making lead pencils and making cedar chests. Speaking of chests, the volatile cedrine camphor oil has been proven to kill larvae of moths that feed on wool.

Redcedar makes a lovely Christmas tree and comes with that perfect smell of the season. Selling it as a Christmas tree may not work where red cedar is not a preferred even though affordable Christmas tree.

Eastern Red Cedar Trees Plant Easily

Eastern redcedar can be planted in full sun or partial shade. Red cedar will easily grow in a variety of soils, including clay, but will not do well when roots are constantly moist or wet. Do not over water redcedar but do water seedlings until established, then leave the tree alone.

Red cedars are difficult to transplant due to a coarse root system except when quite small. Still, when properly planted from nursery stock it will perform well with no care and can handle acid, alkaline soil and coastal soils. Usually, insects and diseases are not a problem if planted in open sun.