Early winter is a great time for noticing and appreciating one fantastic native tree, an evergreen known as redcedar. Although it is in the family Cupressaceae, which includes cedar, this particular plant is a juniper. In mid to northern Georgia, the plant is Juniperus virginiana var. virginiana (Eastern redcedar), while in the lower Coastal Plain it is Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola (Southern or Coastal redcedar), where it can withstand growing even in brackish marshes.
This adaptable species is often disparaged for its ability to pop up in fields and roadsides as well as its host relationship to the cedar fungal rust diseases that affect apples, crabapples, and hawthorns. However, its support for wildlife is fantastic, and man has learned to take advantage of its good qualities such its evergreen foliage, its hard and fragrant wood, and its usefulness in holiday decorations (it is grown as a type of Christmas tree).
I recently visited Jekyll Island on the maritime coast of Georgia. The abundance of Southern redcedar was amazing – from roadsides to marshes to maritime forests! Female trees were loaded with blue fruits, ready to nourish migrating and resident birds through the winter. Juniperus virginiana is a dioecious species, bearing male and female cones on different plants. While the “fruits” of redcedar look like berries, they are actually modified seed cones whose scales have fused together.
The Cedar waxwing is a species of migrating bird known for enjoying these fruits and takes its common name from that relationship. Other birds eat the fruits as well and many more use it for shelter. The Juniper hairstreak butterfly uses Juniperus as a host plant. Humans often use it for a bit of privacy from close neighbors as well as winter decoration. The Georgia Forestry Commission sells seedlings to tree farms to grow as Christmas trees.
A few final observations of redcedar for identification purposes include the look of the foliage and the reproductive cones. Juniperus virginiana can have both juvenile and mature foliage. Juvenile foliage is sharp and needle-like while mature foliage is tightly adpressed and scale-like and both can be on the plant at the same time. In the winter, brown cones will appear on both female and male trees; the tiny cones can be so numerous that the entire plant takes on a bronze hue. The cones are wind-pollinated so expect that pollen will be released in late winter.