Juniperus virginiana / eastern red-cedar

Juniperus virginiana, as described in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus (or Carolus Linnæus) (1707–1778), in Species Plantarum, 2nd edition, is commonly known as eastern red-cedar, red-cedar, eastern juniper, red juniper, pencil cedar, or aromatic cedar. In its native range it is commonly called "cedar" or "red-cedar;" names that are rejected by the American Joint Committee on Horticultural Nomenclature as it is, in fact, a juniper, not a true cedar (Cedrus). However, "red-cedar" is the most-used common name.

There are two specific varieties, which intergrade where they meet:

  • Juniperus virginiana var. virginiana is called eastern juniper / red-cedar. It is found in 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 are larger at 0.16 to 0.28 inch (4 – 7 mm); scale leaves are acute at the apex and bark is red-brown.
  • Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola (Small) E. Murray (syn. Sabina silicicola (Small), Juniperus silicicola (Small) L.H.Bailey) is known as southern or sand juniper/red-cedar. Habitat is along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from North Carolina, south to central Florida and west to southeast Texas. Cones are smaller, at 0.12 to 0.16 inch ( 3 – 4 mm); scale leaves are blunt at apex and the bark is orange-brown in color. It is treated by some authors at the lower rank of variety, while others treat it as a distinct species.

Description. Eastern red-cedar is a densely branched, slow-growing evergreen coniferous species of tree that may never become more than a bush on poor soil, but ordinarily grows to mature heights of 15 to 60 feet (5 – 20 m) or rarely to 90 feet (27 m) tall, with a short trunk, 12 to 40 inches (30 – 100 cm) or rarely to 70 inches (170 cm) in diameter at breast height. One of the oldest reported trees, from Missouri, was 795 years old.

  • Bark is reddish-brown, fibrous, and peels off in narrow strips.
  • Foliage consists of of two types — sharp, spreading needle-like juvenile leaves measuring 0.2 to 0.4 inch (5 – 10 mm) long, and tightly adpressed scale-like adult leaves that measure 0.08 to 0.16 inch (2 – 4 mm) long, arranged in opposite decussate pairs or occasionally whorls of three. The juvenile leaves are found on young plants up to 3 years old, and as scattered shoots on adult trees, usually in shade.
  • Pollen cones measure 0.08 to 0.12 inch (2 – 3 mm) long and 0.06 inch (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.
  • Seed cones are 0.12 to 0.28 inch (3 – 7mm) long, berry-like, dark purple-Blue with a white waxy coverpresenting an overall sky-blue color (though the wax often rubs off),each containing one to three (rarely up to four) seeds, which mature in 6 to 8 months after pollination. The juniper berry is an important winter food for many birds, which disperse the wingless seeds. Cedar waxwings are fond of the "berries" of these junipers. It takes about 12 minutes for their seeds to pass through the birds' guts, and seeds that have been consumed by this bird have levels of germination roughly three times higher than those of seeds the birds did not eat. Many other birds (from bluebirds to turkeys) and many mammals also consume them.
  • 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. The aromatic wood is avoided by moths, so it is in demand as lining for clothes chests and closets, often referred to as cedar closets and cedar chests. If correctly prepared, it makes excellent English longbows, flatbows, and Native American sinew-backed bows. The wood is marketed as "eastern red-cedar" or "aromatic cedar". The best portions of the heartwood are one of the few woods good for making pencils, but the supply had diminished sufficiently by the 1940s that it was largely replaced by incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens).
natural range of <em>Juniperus virginiana </em>
natural range of Juniperus virginiana

Distribution. This species is native to Canada — Ontario and Québec. In the USA — Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin; naturalized in Colorado and Oregon. Further west it is replaced by the related Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) and to the southwest by Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei).

Hardy to USDA Zone 4 cold hardiness limit between -20 and -30ºF (-28.9 and -34.4ºC).

It is a pioneer invader, which means that it is one of the first trees to repopulate cleared, eroded, or otherwise damaged land. It is unusually long lived among pioneer species, with the potential to live over 850 years. 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 significant disease of apples, and some management strategies recommend the removal of J. virginiana near apple orchards.

<em>Juniperus virginiana</em> saplings, Washington Lake Park, New Jersey
Juniperus virginiana saplings, Washington Lake Park, New Jersey

In many areas the trees are considered an invasive species, even if native. The fire intolerant J. virginiana was previously controlled by periodic wildfires. Low branches near the ground burn and provide a ladder that allows fire to engulf the whole tree. Grasses recover quickly from low severity fires that are characteristic of prairies that kept the trees at bay. With the urbanization of prairies, the fires have been stopped with roads, plowed fields, and other fire breaks, allowing J. virginiana and other trees to invade. 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.

Damage done by J. virginiana includes out-competing forage species in pastureland. The low branches and wide base occupy a significant portion of land area. The thick foliage blocks out most light, so few plants can live under the canopy. The needles that fall raise the pH of the soil, making it alkaline, which holds nutrients such as phosphorus, making it harder for plants to absorb them. Juniperus virginiana has been shown to remove nitrogen from the soil after invading prairies. It has also been found to reduce carbon stores in the soil. This reduction in soil nutrients also reduces the amount and diversity of microbial activity in the soil.

During the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, the Prairie States Forest Project encouraged farmers to plant shelter belts (wind breaks) made of eastern juniper throughout the Great Plains. They grow well under adverse conditions. Both drought tolerant and cold tolerant, they grow well in rocky, sandy, and clay substrate. Competition between trees is minimal, so they can be planted in tightly spaced rows, and the trees still grow to full height, creating a solid windbreak in a short time.

Juniperus virginiana Courtesy of Sandra McLean Cutler, author of "Dwarf & Unusual Conifers Coming of Age".
Photo by Sandra McLean Cutler
Eastern Red Cedar lining the sand road leading to Barnegat Inlet in Island Beach State Park, NJ.
Photo by Famartin via Wikipedia
Eastern red cedar Juniperus virginiana in winter. Sandy Hook Old Dune Trail, New Jersey
Photo by Miguel Vieira via Wikipedia
Eastern red cedar berries.
Photo by USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Herman, D.E
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), St. Joseph Twp., Ontario
Photo by Fungus Guy via Wikipedia
Juniperus virginiana saplings, Washington Lake Park, New Jersey
Photo by A.M. Dougherty


Carol Brocklesby

I am looking for a small evergreen tree for southwest florida similar to the juniper. It can't grow taller than 10 ft. and will be used to screen an ugly chain link fence. Can you help me find the right conifer?

Claudia Kelly

While not similar to a juniper, you might want to consider a holly bush. The red berries are a plus and will attract birds to your yards. I have China Girl in my yard. She tops out at 10'.


My mom has a Juniper tree with berries, but it also has an orange like fruit or flower. Have you ever seen this kind?