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Eastern Red Cedar–Know Your Enemy

Dwayne Rice, former Rangeland Management Specialist
Lincoln, Kansas

If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.  If you do not know your enemy nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana L.) is the most widely distributed conifer in the Eastern United States and native to Kansas.  Red cedar is not a true cedar, but rather a member of the Juniper genus having a cone or fruit that is fleshy and berry-like rather than woody.  Juniperus is the classical Latin name; virginiana refers to the state of Virginia.

Before European settlement in America, eastern red cedar trees were relatively rare.  Historically, red cedar only survived on rock outcroppings or in canyons, bluffs, and other areas where fire did not reach.  Fire was intentionally set by Native Americans, especially during the late spring, summer, and early fall, to promote a diversity of habitats for hunting, fireproofing areas, pest management, improve production, warfare, insect collection, crop management, and economic extortion.  With the increase of European land management practices, forests expanded and the red cedar escaped from sites where it had been historically contained.  It has since invaded virtually all of Kansas’ plant communities.  In the absence of fire, eastern red cedar thrives and may eventually dominate the prairie vegetation.

The wide natural distribution clearly indicates it has the ability to grow under varying moisture and temperature extremes.  Eastern red cedar has an inherent ability to sustain stomatal opening at low moisture levels, which help the species adapt to dry environments and drought conditions.  Red cedar is an evergreen which allows it to grow year round, whenever temperatures are above 40° F.  It is somewhat shade tolerant and can conduct photosynthesis during the winter when over story hardwoods are leafless, making it a strong competitor in forests and woodlands.

Like most plants, red cedar grows best in well drained soils that are at least 24 inches deep but can establish on a wide variety of soil types (fertile to dry rocky outcrops) and moisture conditions (very dry to wet but well-drained).  It prefers calcareous soils and is even moderately tolerant of salinity.  Red cedars display great diversity in phenotypic characteristics such as tree form, foliage color, and crown shape.  Annual growth rates are generally between 0.5 to 1.5 feet dependent upon climate and soil quality.  Heights of 30─35 feet are not uncommon under good soil and moisture conditions.  The reigning Kansas state champion, located near Neodesha in Wilson County, measures 63’ tall, has a 12’3” trunk circumference at the 54 inch height, and a 37’ crown spread.  Although eastern red cedar is listed as moderately long lived, a tree 795 years in age was reported in Missouri and, based on tree-ring chronology records from West Virginia, a red cedar has the potential to live over 850 years.  Eastern red cedar has a thin bark and flammable foliage that easily ignites making it highly susceptible to fire.  It contains cedrol, a volatile terpene, and other oils that ignite and burn easily.  The conical growth form brings the flammable foliage close to the ground.  In forests and woodlands cedars can act as a ladder fuel to allow fire to climb into the crowns of taller trees.  When it burns, red cedar can shower thousands of embers (firebrands) downwind increasing the chance of spot fires and the overall rate of fire spread. 

Research has shown that red cedar is a dominant factor in displacing grassland birds and songbirds from the native prairie and as few as three red cedar per acre will displace some birds (prairie chickens) from their habitat.  Red cedars can provide some value to wildlife but the value is generally not unique and can often be fulfilled by other vegetation.  As cedars invade, vegetation that supplies food and nesting cover for quail and mast (acorns) for turkey and deer are squeezed out.  Turkeys routinely abandon roost sites that have grown up into red cedars.  Areas infested with cedars often attract  raccoons, opossums, skunks, and snakes which displace bobwhite quail coveys and turkeys mainly through nest predation.  However, fire promotes plants that wildlife prefer for food.  Thus, a burned plot of any size, especially one devoid of all cedars, is a food plot.

Eastern red cedar has spread aggressively in poorly managed rangeland due to the lack of prescribed fire management, as well as a lack of appreciation for prairie and shrubland ecosystems and indigenous wildlife.  During the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930’s, the Prairie States Forest Project encouraged farmers to plant eastern red cedars in shelterbelts (windbreaks) throughout the Great Plains.  Cities and towns are directly affected by the increased wildfire hazards associated at the Wildland Urban Interface.  The increase in red cedar on the landscape near municipalities and homes changes the fire regime from frequent, low intensity fires to infrequent but extremely high intensity fires.

Eastern red cedars are likely to continue their expansion throughout their range as a result of urban development, landscape fragmentation, but mostly due to the exclusion of prescribed burning.  The cost of doing nothing increases every year.  Taking action is the only way to reverse the trend.  For more information on controlling eastern red cedar and other brush species in your pastures, contact your local NRCS office.  To find a service center near you, check your telephone book under “United States Government” or on the Internet at offices.usda.gov.  Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas.  USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.