This tree will give you shakes and shingles.
Building materials aside, many of us agree that the Eastern red cedar is a terrific tree.
Arthur Barlowe and Phillip Amadus, who arrived at Roanoke Island in 1564, noticed these beautiful trees, effusing that they were “the tallest and reddest cedars in the world.” After so many days at sea, idola-tree can be tolerated.
In 1602, our own Island’s European discoverers, Bartholomew Gosnold and John Brereton, reported proudly back to England that “this island is full of high timbered Oaks, their leaves thrice so broad as ours; Cedars strait and tall,” and emphasized their value: “They will make masts for the greatest shippes of the world. Excellent timbers of Cedar, and boards for buildings.”
Others felt the same. Poet Robert Penn Warren specifically appreciated the berries. He wrote, “the blue cedar berry is as blue as distance.” I am not sure how blue distance is, but it sounds like a compliment. And don’t forget Edwin Markham, who lamented the loss of a cedar that left a “lonesome place against the sky.”
Red cedar trees have some non-human admirers as well. Deer will browse on their branches, and sparrows, robins, mockingbirds, juncos, and warblers will nest and roost in their evergreen scales.
But there is a bird that holds this tree even more dear. Cedar waxwings are closely associated with red cedars because they feast on those “distance-colored” berries.
While it might seem sexist, cedar waxwings are partial to the female trees. In truth, this preference makes sense because only the female trees have the berries. The males instead have botanical structures that release pollen.
This tree is a cedar that isn’t actually a cedar. Eastern red cedar trees, Juniper virginianus, are in the cypress family, not the cedar clan. To differentiate, note that junipers have berries while cedars have cones.
The wood from the red cedar is stunning: the ruddy bark peels in strips, the heartwood can be red or purple, and the multitudes of uses make any arborist smile. The hardwood is used for fence posts and borders. Consider that Baton Rouge, La., was named for the red cedar batons or posts that were ubiquitous in the area.
Other uses abound: furniture, building materials, and even pencils were made of red cedar wood. The seeds, when crushed, emit a smell and oil that would both repel insects and vermin and add flavor to gin. You can raise a toast to the multiple uses of this plant.
Pharmacologically, this tree is a cure-all, though notable is its use for treating cholera. In 1849, a cholera epidemic among the Dakota was quelled after the sick received “a hot decoction of cedar scales taken internally and then partook in an external medicinal cedar bath.” Other health claims include lessening the pains of childbirth, treating kidney illnesses, curing dysentery and banishing worms in children.
By far the most interesting alias and disturbing use is that of a “graveyard tree.” Superstition dictates that one should plant a red cedar tree at one’s gravesite. When the tree grows tall enough to shade the entire gravesite, it is your time to die. Once you go, at least you will spend eternity with this great tree.
If you are lucky, cedar trees will be part of your whole life. Start with a cedar cradle, graduate to a bed, dresser and cedar chest, (resist the urge to carve your lover’s initials into the tree’s sturdy trunk in your teen years), cure occasional ills with cedar extracts, shelter behind its durable shingles, and, finally, rest in the shade of its majestic boughs.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.