The Waxwing Tree

Lately I’ve been noticing lots of different birds eating the light blue, berry-like cones found on Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). I am not sure whether Red Cedars have mast years (when they produce more fruit, like oaks do), but they seem to have their branches covered this year.

The blue, berry-like cones of Eastern Red Cedar are a favorite of birds. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Red Cedar is one of the top 10 trees for attracting birds. The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), and Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) all love its cones. But it is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), often spotted feeding on Red Cedars, that is named for this tree. There is also a small, colorful, green butterfly—the Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus)—that is so named because its larvae feed on Eastern Red Cedar leaves.

The Cedar Waxwing is named after Eastern Red Cedar. Photo by Andrew C, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.
The larvae of the Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus) feed on Eastern Red Cedar leaves. Photo by khteWisconsin, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern Red Cedar is actually a juniper, not a true cedar. I feel to show this its common name might be more appropriately hyphenated as “Eastern Red-cedar.” However, I haven’t seen this done lately. True cedars, such as the Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica), are found in the Mediterranean. The Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodara) is from the western Himalayas. These are in the pine family (Pinaceae). The Eastern Red Cedar is a member of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), which includes the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis).

Eastern Red Cedar is a common tree in eastern North America. It is a pioneer species, one of the first species to colonize a cleared field in secondary forest succession. As the trees grow larger, they provide shade for other trees, like oaks and maples, that eventually overtop and shade out the cedars as a new forest begins to grow. However, without competition Eastern Red Cedar can be a long-lived tree. One tree is known to have a recorded age of more than 900 years!

Eastern Red Cedars are one of the first trees to colonize a field. They are also common along roadsides as well. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Northeast Pennsylvania, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are many uses for Eastern Red Cedar. In the early 1900s, Red Cedar was the tree of choice used to make pencils. So many trees were apparently cut for commercial production that Red Cedar became scarce and other trees and synthetic materials were substituted. It is still common today to use its wood for chests and closets because its scent repels moths. The pinkish heartwood of Red Cedar is extremely rot resistant and is often used for fenceposts.

Red Cedar was once the wood of choice for making pencils. The photo of this cedar mill was taken around 1890.
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some tribal nations have historically used juniper wood poles to mark the changing alignment of the sun during the seasons, as was done at Stonehenge. The Cahokia Woodhenge was a series of timber circles during the pre-Columbian Mississippian culture in western Illinois. One circle nicknamed “Woodhenge III,” had 48 massive juniper posts in a circle that was 410 feet in diameter and a pole in the center. Some tribal nations continue to use juniper wood in ceremonies today.

Cedar “berries” are used to flavor gin—not Eastern Red Cedar, but another native species, Common Juniper (Juniperus communis). Apparently Common Juniper, which also grows in Europe and Asia, has the best flavor.

In the landscape, Eastern Red Cedar has the best drought resistance of any of our native coniferous (cone-bearing) trees, which is good to know with the challenges of climate change. This tree can tolerate a variety of conditions, from dry to moist, and alkaline to acid, soils. It also is salt tolerant and can be grown next to roads that are treated in winter. Red Cedars are the alternative host for Cedar Apple Rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae), a fungus that infects apple trees. So it would be best to avoid planting a Red Cedar near any apple trees.

If you are lucky enough to have an Eastern Red Cedar in your yard or nearby open space, you’ll want to protect it. And, you’ll be helping out quite a few birds as well as other wildlife into the bargain.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

8 thoughts on “The Waxwing Tree

  1. Thank you. Very informative. I always wanted to know cedars versus junipers in the Americas. Now I understand.

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  2. Hi, Jim. Enjoyed this post. This vigorous tree seeds itself all over my meadow! Talk about a pioneer species.

    I wondered if you have a source for the top trees for bird attraction? I am working on an article on forest habitat structure.

    Thanks, Kathy

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    1. Hi Kathy! I emailed you this but in case you didn’t get it: As far as top trees for bird attraction, you can use the Native Plant Finder to find trop trees for Lepidoptera, which are tops for birds who feed their young larvae
      (not listing taxa for my lack of time!):

      In order of importance – Oaks, Cherries (black cherry, choke cherry), willows (black willow, pussy willow), birches, aspens, maples, pines, hickories, elm, basswood.

      Were you thinking of top trees for fruit/seeds in winter? That might be a slightly different list. Let me know. Cheers, Jim

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