red juniper

Juniperus virginiana

Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Redcedar, Red Cedar, Eastern Juniper, Red Juniper, Pencil Cedar) is a species of juniper native to eastern North America, from southeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, east of the Great Plains. Further west, it is replaced by the related Juniperus scopulorum (Rocky Mountain Juniper), and to the southwest, by Juniperus ashei (Ashe Juniper).

The Lakota Native American name is Chansha, "redwood" or Hante'. In its native range, it is commonly called "cedar" or "red cedar", names rejected by the American Joint Committee on Horticultural Nomenclature as it is a juniper, not a true cedar.


Juniperus virginiana is a dense slow-growing tree that may never become more than a bush on poor soil but is ordinarily from 5-20 m (rarely to 27 m) tall, with a short trunk 30-100 cm (rarely 170 cm) diameter. The oldest tree reported, from Missouri, was 795 years old. The bark is reddish-brown, fibrous, and peels off in narrow strips. The leaves are of two types; sharp, spreading needle-like juvenile leaves 5-10 mm long, and tightly adpressed scale-like adult leaves 2-4 mm long; they are arranged in opposite decussate pairs or occasionally whorls of three. The juvenile leaves are found on young plants up to 1-3 years old, and as scattered shoots on adult trees, usually in shade. The seed cones are 3-7 mm long, berry-like with fleshy scales, dark purple-blue with a white wax cover giving an overall sky-blue color (though the wax often rubs off); they contain one or two (rarely up to four) seeds, and are mature in 6-8 months from pollination. They are an important winter food for many birds, which disperse the wingless seeds. The pollen cones are 2–3 mm long and 1.5 mm broad, shedding pollen in late winter or early spring. The trees are usually dioecious, with pollen and seed cones on separate trees.

There are two varieties, which intergrade where they meet:

  • Juniperus virginiana var. virginiana. Eastern Juniper / Redcedar. Eastern North America, from Maine west to southern Ontario and South Dakota, south to northernmost Florida and southwest into the post oak savannah of east-central Texas. Cones larger, 4-7 mm; scale leaves acute at apex; bark red-brown.
  • Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola (Small) E.Murray (syn. Sabina silicicola Small, Juniperus silicicola (Small) L.H.Bailey). Southern or Sand Juniper / Redcedar. Along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from North Carolina south to central Florida and west to southeast Texas. Cones smaller, 3-4 mm; scale leaves blunt at apex; bark orange-brown. It is treated by some authors at the lower rank of variety, while others treat it as a distinct species.


It is a pioneer invader, which means that it is one of the first trees to repopulate cleared, eroded, or otherwise damaged land. The tree is commonly found in prairies or oak barrens, old pastures, or limestone hills, often along highways and near recent construction sites. It is an alternate host for cedar-apple rust disease, an economically important disease of apples, and some management strategies recommend the removal of J. virginiana near apple orchards .


The fine-grained, soft brittle pinkish- to brownish-red heartwood is fragrant, very light and very durable, even in contact with soil. Because of its rot resistance the wood is used for fence posts. Because the aromatic wood is avoided by moths it is in demand as lining for clothes chests and closets, often referred to as cedar closets and cedar chests. It was once a premier wood for pencils. If correctly prepared, it makes excellent English style longbows, flatbows, and Native American type sinewed bows. The wood is marketed as "eastern redcedar" or "aromatic cedar".

Juniper oil is distilled from the wood, twigs and leaves. The cones are used to flavor gin and as a kidney medicine.

Native American tribes used juniper wood poles to mark out agreed tribal hunting territories. French traders named Baton Rouge, Louisiana (meaning "red stick") from the reddish color of these poles.

During the dust bowl drought in the 1930s, the Prairie States Forest Project encouraged farmers to plant shelterbelts (wind breaks) made of Eastern Juniper throughout the Great Plains. While they are still planted for this purpose, in many areas the trees are considered an invasive species even in areas where they are native. Previously controlled by periodic wildfires, the trees are destructive to grasslands if left unchecked, and are actively being eliminated by cutting and prescribed burning. The trees also burn very readily, and dense populations were blamed for the rapid spread of wildfires in drought stricken Oklahoma and Texas in 2005 and 2006.

A number of cultivars have been selected for garden planting, including 'Canaertii' (narrow conical; female) 'Corcorcor' (with a dense, erect crown; female), 'Goldspire' (narrow conical with yellow foliage), and 'Kobold' (dwarf). Some cultivars previously listed under this species, notably 'Skyrocket', are actually cultivars of J. scopulorum.

In the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks, Eastern Juniper is commonly used as a christmas tree.


The pollen is a known allergen, although not as potent as that of the related Juniperus ashei (Ashe Juniper) which sheds pollen a month earlier. People allergic to one are usually allergic to both. J. virginiana sheds pollen as early as late winter and through early spring. Consequently, what begins as an allergy to Ashe Juniper in the winter, may extend into spring since the pollination of the Eastern Juniper follows after that of the Ashe Juniper.

Contact with the leaves or wood can produce a mild skin rash in some individuals.


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