If you were asked to name four plants that are associated with Christmas, what would you say? You could not go wrong if you listed the holly, poinsettia, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree. All of these plants will always be inexorably linked to this special holiday. However, in the hearts and minds of most Americans, the plant that symbolizes Christmas more than any other is the Christmas tree.
Each year millions of Americans center their celebration of this special holiday around the Christmas tree. A number of different kinds of trees are used as Christmas trees. According to The National Christmas Tree Foundation, the ten most popular Christmas trees are, in descending order of popularity, the Frazer fir, Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce, Scotch pine, eastern red-cedar, white spruce, eastern white pine and Virginia pine.
However, throughout much of the 20th century, for most Georgians, the Christmas tree of choice was the eastern red cedar. Most of us refer to this evergreen tree as simply cedar. The tree is abundant, has a natural “Christmas tree” shape, and fills a room with the pleasant aroma of cedar.
Nowadays, the popularity of the cedar has waned. Some folks are buying artificial numbers fabricated from aluminum or plastic. The majority of those that still use a natural tree are choosing firs, spruces, pines, or Leyland cypresses over the cedar.
Fortunately, for our backyard wildlife neighbors, eastern red cedars are showing up in home landscapes with increasing regularity. This is due in large part to tree’s attractive conical shape, resistance to disease and drought and low maintenance. It should not be overlooked that it is also so valuable to wildlife and deserves the title of The Wildlife Christmas Tree.
Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the eastern red cedar provides wildlife with food, nesting sites and protection from the elements and predators, its importance to wildlife is rarely appreciated.
This native cedar can be found growing throughout most of the eastern United States. It ranges across 37 states from as far north as New England south to Georgia and west to Texas. It is a common tree throughout most of Georgia, with the exception of our coastal counties.
This is the cedar commonly found growing around abandoned house sites, vintage homes, and old cemeteries and along fence lines.
The eastern red cedar is an extremely adaptable plant. It can be found with its roots sunk into the damp flood plains that hug our rivers all the way to dry, red clay hilltops. About the only place is does not do well is under a heavy forest canopy.
More often than not, the cedars we see growing in fencerows have been unknowingly planted by birds. Cedar seeds are very hard and often pass unscathed through a bird’s digestive system. When a bird perches on a fence and leaves behind a dropping containing cedar seeds, the hard seeds often germinate and eventually become a young tree.
Eastern red cedar trees are ideally suited for most yards. These long-lived (300+ years), slow-growing evergreen trees can reach a height of 60 feet or more and measure two feet in diameter.
Here in the Peach State, eastern red cedars bloom in February and March. Small (1/4″) fleshy, greenish, blue berry-like cones mature from October to December. Each cone usually contains two hard seeds. The cones often persist until the following March. This is extremely important as they provide food for wildlife throughout the winter when food is often hard to come by.
One of the great things about red cedars is that they can be relied upon to fruit annually. Bumper crops are produced every second or third year.
Hosts of animals eat eastern red cedar foliage and fruits. For example, both rabbits and deer will consume the foliage.
More than two dozen birds dine on eastern red cedar fruits. This impressive list includes such backyard favorites as the American robin, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, mourning dove, eastern bluebird, and cedar waxwing. As you might expect, cedar waxwings are extremely fond of this winter food. The berry-like cones are also eaten by wild turkeys and quail. Coyotes, opossums, chipmunks, and even armadillos consume them.
The tree is also the host plant for the beautiful, petite juniper hairstreak butterfly. This often-elusive butterfly spends its entire life in close proximity to cedar trees. Females lay their eggs on the cedars. Upon hatching, the caterpillars eat cedar foliage.
Even the adults are invariably found on the trees. Often the only way that you can hope to see a juniper hairstreak is to tap on the trunk of a cedar tree. If the butterflies are present, they will briefly fly upwards before settling back into the thick, green foliage again.
A number of birds build their nests in cedar trees including northern cardinals, brown thrashers, northern mockingbirds, American robins, and common grackles.
The tree’s dense foliage makes it ideally suited for escape cover. Birds will often fly into cedars to escape pursuing hawks. Also, cedar trees provide protection against rain, snow, and sleet. In fact, during the winter, the interior of a cedar tree provides an ideal roosting spot on cold, blustery winter nights. At least 21 species of birds use the trees as roosting sites.
Some of the birds known to roost there are chipping sparrows, northern cardinals, wild turkeys, and eastern screech owls.
I strongly suspect wintering hummingbirds such as the rufous hummingbird also roosts in these trees since I often find that they are frequently the only good roosting sites available in yards frequented by these western migrants.
It appears that the eastern red cedar may never again be the most popular Christmas tree in the Georgia. However, the fact it is prospering throughout the state and is even becoming an integral part of backyard landscapes insures that this tree will remain an important wildlife plant well into the future.
On Christmas eve, when I look at the my Christmas tree surrounded by lovingly wrapped presents, I will find it comforting to know that not too far from my backdoor stands my large wildlife Christmas tree. Although no colored lights hang from its spreading boughs, on the ground beneath it, there will be untold numbers of tiny blue nutrient-rich presents ready to be discovered on Christmas day by my hungry wildlife neighbors. And when I pull up the covers and drift off into sleep, I will know that the birds roosting in the tree are protected from the harshest winter weather.
If you are planning to build a new home on a site where one or more eastern red cedars are growing, leave them standing. On the other hand, if no cedars are growing in your yard, plant one or more. In either case, you will be giving your wildlife neighbors gifts that never stop giving.
As such, by offering our backyard neighbors with a dependable source of food, nesting sites, and cover, it deserves to be called the wildlife Christmas tree.
© Terry W. Johnson originally published in “The Out My Backdoor” column featured in Georgia Wild E-Newsletter