Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a common native plant here in the South Carolina Lowcountry. It can grow to be a relatively tall tree, topping out at about 60 feet. Even here on a barrier island where the salt spray carves the trees, Red Cedars have no problem stretching taller than our maximum house height of 52’.
The early colonists used it for fence posts and furniture, as well as shipbuilding. John Lawson, describing the Carolinas to his British patrons in A New Voyage to Carolina 1674-1711 says of South Carolina,
‘This Place is more plentiful in Money, than most, or indeed any of the Plantations on the Continent; besides they build a considerable Number of Vessels of Cedar, and other Wood, with which they trade to Cuirassau, and the West Indies; from one they bring Money, and from the other the Produce of their Islands, which yields a necessary Supply of both to the Colony.
After the colonial period, the most common commercial use for the trees was for the production of pencils.
By the early twentieth century, most of the tallest, straightest trees had been harvested for pencils and that industry switched to western incense cedars, although there are a few companies still selling red cedar pencils.
By the end of the 1930’s, residents all over the south were encouraged to plant Eastern Red Cedars for erosion control after the dustbowl. They serve as an effective windbreak here on Dewees Island as well: if you drive along Dewees Inlet drive during a strong wind, you can see how the sand moves across the road differently than where there are no cedars providing shelter from the wind. This aerial shows the cedar/live oak line of trees during a king tide.
Eastern Red Cedars are salt-tolerant and can be found at the borders of brackish marshes~ you can find them essentially everywhere on the island that there’s enough high ground to support them. The wood is aromatic and antiseptic, which makes it a good choice for cedar chests to protect clothing from moths and other pests. It’s also very beautiful, with whorls and different colored wood features. My dad made me this cedar chest from a tree on my parents property.
The essential oils that deter pests also give the wood durability. Cedar fence posts have more longevity, and this lovely dead snag out by one of our marsh docks gave Lone Cedar dock its name.
They also serve as Christmas trees and are occasionally grown for that very purpose. One of our favorite early photos of Dewees Island is the Huylers bringing home the Christmas tree in a cart pulled by Jane the mule on their first Christmas on Dewees in 1925.
Identification and Biology
Red Cedars can be shaped like Christmas trees, or carved naturally into more triangular shapes by the salt breeze. The leaves are linear and spread from the twigs, and on new growth those “leaves” can be very prickly. As the stems mature, leaves are more like short scales.
The plants are dioecious: meaning there are male and female plants usually located near one another. The female seed cones are the purple berries, the male pollen cones are the ones we find from January through March emitting pollen.
The bark has thin strips that peel horizontally, and the trunks can be buttressed along the bottom.
The forks between the branches provide shelter for island raccoons to nap, and it’s not just cedar waxwings who eat the fruits; there are a wide variety of warblers who find shelter and food in the branches. I’ve seen Black and white warblers, myrtle warblers, ruby crowned kinglets, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, flickers, chickadees, and these warblers all enjoying the fruits.
If you live in the lowcountry where you might be thinking of putting something like leland cyprus; you may find the native red cedar far superior in terms of quick growth and cover for wildlife. It doesn’t tolerate shade, so plant it out in the open. Choosing native plants for wildlife is always the best option! Check out Roots and Shoots Nursery for options.