Published on 07/22/99

Female Redcedars: A Paler Shade of Green

(Editor's Note: the tree in this article is normally referred to as "red cedar." The 14th through 16th paragraphs explain the lexical variation and the use here of the term "redcedar.")

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Photo: Dan Rahn

Framed by a giant oak in the background, the female redcedar on the right is a lighter shade of green than the male redcedar on the left. The difference comes from the female's extra abundance of pale, bluish green cones.

Summer brings an infinite range of green colors. This summer a rare event brings more colors to the eye: female redcedars are producing a heavy cone crop.

Redcedar is a rough-looking, pointy-scaled and stringy-barked tree. It's found along well-lighted edges of the woods, fencerows and in open, forgotten areas.

Anywhere there are sunlight and little competition, redcedars may be found. Their seeds are spread by birds and so are found growing in the most unlikely places.

Cones, Not Berries

Redcedar is a dioecious tree, meaning each tree is only male or female. Male redcedars produce pollen, which the wind carries away. Female redcedars produce small, round cones, which are sometimes mistakenly called berries and are used to flavor gin.

Female redcedars produce some cones every year, with large crops every third year. And some years, like this summer, redcedars produce an extra abundance of cones.

Female redcedar cones are one-fourth of an inch thick. They're greenish-blue to blue, with a whitish, waxy coating. The cones form in the fall, become receptive the following spring, and disseminate seeds by fall.

Inside each redcedar cone are one to three seeds. These seeds are covered in resin and contain a strong growth inhibitor which can delay germination up to three years. The whitish coating over a dark blue cone helps produce a variety of colors in mature trees.

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Photo: Dan Rahn

The bluish-green of redcedar cones framed by the dark green of the foliage make for a unique image.

Widespread Conifer

This year is an especially heavy fruiting year for redcedars. Many female redcedars appear bluish-green because of their dense cone load.

Redcedar is a small to medium-size tree with a dense crown. It's slow-growing and reaches sexual maturity after 10 years, with a maximum life span of three centuries.

The tree can germinate and grow for a short time on many soils, but is outcompeted by shrubs and trees. Mature redcedars are found in places where other trees find it hard to grow.

Redcedar is the most widely growing conifer tree in the eastern United States. The country has about a dozen native species. The Western hemisphere is home to 25 species. The world has about 60.

Two Georgia Redcedars

Georgians are blessed with two common redcedar species: eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Southern redcedar (Juniperus silicicola).

The Southern species is found closely hugging the coast on deep sands. The eastern redcedar is found throughout the rest of eastern North America.

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Photo: Dan Rahn

In forestry and other scientific disciplines, the tree known as "redcedar" -- one word -- refers specifically to tree-size plants in the Juniperus genus.

In the common language, these juniper trees are known as "red cedar" -- two words. The most comprehensive dictionaries note other commonly used terms for the same trees, such as "red juniper," "Virginia cedar" and "cedar."

Juniper, Not Cedar

The problem scientists have with the common-language term is simple. A family of trees found around the world is correctly called "cedar," and redcedar is not one of them. Simply put, redcedar isn't a cedar. In fact, it has few things in common with true cedars.

The leaves and wood of redcedar contain special oils that are used in perfumes and medicines. The smell of a cedar chest or cedar-lined closet comes from these oils. The wood resists decay and is durable.

The dense seed production this year means that redcedar cone-eating birds will have a fall and winter bonanza. It also means that the next few years will produce a host of little cedars in flower beds, forest edges and vacant lots.

For now, the bluish-green of redcedar cones framed by the dark green of the foliage make for a unique image in forested landscapes.

To request high-resolution images, click here.

Kim Coder is a forester with the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.