Sunday, January 1, 2023

Red cedar: an important habitat tree

A female red cedar with fruit.

Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is medium-sized, dioecious evergreen conifer with female trees that bear waxy, berry-like cones, which many types of birds will eat as the weather grows colder.

While most botanists agree that there is one species of red cedar that's native to most of eastern North America, the old precedent recognized coastal red cedar (J. silicicola) and eastern red cedar (J. virginiana) a bit inland, with a big range from Texas to southern Ontario. This old protocol meant that except for the northern border of Florida's Panhandle, the red cedars native to Florida were the coastal species.

Red cedar is in the cypress family (Cupressaceae), which has world-wide distribution--except for Antarctica. Other members of this family found in Florida are two cypresses: pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) and bald cypress (T. distichum); Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides); plus the non-natives: oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis) and white cypress-pine (Callitris glaucophylla).

Using red cedar in the landscape

Red cedar is a pioneer species that volunteers, sometimes abundantly (thanks to birds), on upland disturbed sites. It grows quickly if grown in full sun, where it grows into a perfect elongated cone shape, however, as it matures, the tree loses its lower branches and the crown becomes rounded or irregular. If it grows in wooded areas, the growth pattern of the tree is more open and irregular, but if it grows at the edge of a wooded area, it's likely to be lopsided with much more growth toward the open side. It’s a good choice for upland buffer areas in coastal areas because it's wind tolerant and also tolerant of salt spray and occasional inundation with brackish or salt water.

A volunteer in a wooded ravine has a more open and irregular shape. It's about three feet tall. When grown at the edge of a wooded area, red cedars produce many more branches on the side where there is more light. This lopsided red cedar is about ten feet tall.

Because of its dense growth and branches to the ground, red cedars offer excellent habitat, especially for birds. And also because of this growth pattern, they are often used in the landscape as a screen, either by itself or as part of a hedgerow, but either way, plan ahead and give it room to spread for the best results. It's best to plant a group of them in a slightly zigzag pattern to form a dense screen. In general, it's more sustainable to include several species of shrubs or trees in a hedgerow so that if one species is attacked by a pest or a disease, that the other species may continue to flourish and do well. Also, in planning the various species to include in a screen, plan for various seasonal interests such as times of flowering and fruiting. 

Red cedars are evergreen and make a good screen in the landscape, but give them room to grow.

There are many good reasons to use plants as a screen in your yard or other landscapes. An effective vegetative screen blocks not only a view so there is more privacy, it also reduces dust and other wind-borne debris and it reduces sounds from traffic on roads or other noise pollution. A dense stand of trees will cool the air through process of transpiration when water evaporates from the leaves. 

Trimming the bottom branches reduces the habitat value and privacy. This also creates more maintenance and more noise pollution in your yard.

Unfortunately, many people trim away the lower branches of red cedars and other plants like magnolias that also naturally have branches close to the ground. Some so-called gardening experts say that this "opens up your landscape." This causes more need for maintenance because after the low branches are gone, there is more light reaching the ground so there will be weeds and it's likely that turfgrass will not grow well under the trees, so some type of ground cover and mulch combination will be needed to keep it neat. So leave the low branches until they are naturally shed and you can plan for this by adding a variety of shrubs, bunching grasses, and wildflowers in the area to create an ongoing habitat thicket into the future.


Photo by Florida Native Plants Nursery
Sarasota, FL

Oh Christmas Tree

Just think, if you buy live Florida native trees for Christmas for the next few years, you'll have a good start on a landscape that welcomes birds and cools the air around your house. You could celebrate a greener holidays with a bonus addition to the Real Florida in your yard. Also, you'll have a living reminder of each Christmas as you build your Christmas grove.

If you don't have room for more trees in your yard, start a community-wide project to create a wooded areas for the birds on schoolyards, churchyards, municipal properties. and other landscaped areas where there is too much unused lawn. We can do this.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

- This living holiday tree article is from a few years back:

- For more information on how trees do the most to cool the air through transpiration in my article: Transpiration: Forests' most important service



  1. Was prompted to read this from your post on Facebook ( Florida Native Gardening group)
    I planted one in my backyard about ten years ago. I was a bit ignorant about their growth patter but I don’t trim it at the base.
    If I do any trimming at all it’s more at top so that it stays at a height I can control.
    I began to have concerns it would get away from me and become a problem for power lines eventually. They’re not close enough to be a problem now but if it was to really begin spreading out at its top and was taller…. It might.
    Anyway, I love it and so do the smaller more “shy” birds.
    Have a Simpson stopper about 15’ away and those type birds go back and forth between.
    Thanks for your information!

  2. We have one of the Red Cedar's in our yard of years, its large, the birds love it and the Waxwings eat the fruit in late autumn. Ive gotten some lovely bird shots in and around it.