The family tradition of cutting our own Christmas tree goes back to my childhood. I remember walking for what seemed like miles with my Dad across the rocky fields of my grandmother’s farm. My Mom had me wrapped up tighter than a mummy with heavy woolen snow pants, coat, mittens, hat and scarf, and rubber boots with multiple layers of wool socks – I walked like a zombie from The Walking Dead with joints incapable of movement. Dad held my hand and helped me over the rougher terrain. After all, I was only about four years old at the time of my first tree-cutting adventure.
The trees that grew on the farm seemed enormous to me – giants, straight and prickly. They were columns of green with some bluish berries, “pasture cedar,” Dad called them. Dad and I carefully selected just the right one. From the first cut, its fragrance filled my nostrils and, to this day, it is the smell of Christmas for me. The tree was cut and hoisted up on Dad’s shoulder for the walk back to the house. I realize now that the tree was probably about five feet tall but then it seemed huge and Dad invincibly powerful as he effortlessly carried the tree, the saw and guided me by the hand back to hot chocolate and Grammy’s Moon Cookies.
Our little pasture cedar was an Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana. As special as it was to us each holiday, the tree species is very common throughout eastern North America. While it is called red cedar by most, it is a juniper not a true cedar according to the American Joint Committee on Horticultural Nomenclature.
Eastern Red Cedar is a very slow-growing conifer that ranges from more of a bush in poor soil to a 16-66 foot tree in average soil, with a diameter of 12-18 inches. The bark is reddish-brown, hence the name red cedar. It is fibrous and will peel off in strips, giving it a shaggy quality under certain circumstances. The leaves have two forms: the new ones are sharp and needle-like; the mature leaves are press tightly into flat configurations I think resemble fans. The mature leaves appear on trees that are four years or older, except where new growth is marked by new needle-like spines, particularly on the shaded sides of the tree.
The junipers have cones that hold their seeds, like other conifers, except these cones really look like berries. It takes 10 years for a tree to mature to generate seeds. Each berry has a bluish-purplish color and is covered with a white wax. They contain one or two seeds and are mature within 8 months of being pollinated. The berries are important food sources for birds in winter months and they help disburse the seeds.
Considered a “pioneer invasive,” Eastern Red Cedar is often one of the first trees to take hold in damaged land. It has a long life span, living to over 700 years according to a number of sources. But because it is so slow growing, it appears to be a bush for some time. It is tenacious, existing in poor soil and dry conditions.
In the old days, a young girl hopeful of marriage would have a cedar chest to collect household goods for her future life with a spouse. Those chests were traditionally crafted from the heart wood of Eastern Red Cedar, an especially beautiful pinkish to red-medium brown color. Its fine grain added beauty to a finished piece of furniture, and its fragrance protected previous handwork stored within. Cedar has always been used as a moth preventative in chests, closet linings and other applications.
The wood also is also less affected by weather elements and therefore a good choice for outside building material. It has long been a wood used in making canoes and other small boats for the same reason.
Various parts of the tree have been used in folk medicine for centuries. Native Americans used a tea made from the leaves to relieve cough and sore throats. The wood was burned as a fragrant element in purification rites and other religious rituals.
The list of potent potables includes a spirit made from Eastern Red Cedar. The word “gin” comes from the French words genievre which means juniper berry. Alcohol was distilled over the berries of the Eastern Red Cedar to produce the liquor with its distinctive taste.
As I travel around the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor this season, I am on the lookout for junipers. Not to cut, just to admire and revel in the fact that they are still growing in our watershed. They are holding the soil, generating oxygen and filtering pollutants from the air.
That’s a pretty good Christmas gift.