Texas Christmas Trees
Eileen Berger Indian Trail Master Naturalist
During the winter, if you drive down any country road in Texas you will see green trees among the leafless ones. They are the cedars, which are technically not cedars but junipers. When settlers came to Texas they found many uses for these evergreens. They used the stumps as termite-proof foundations on which to rest the floors of their houses and barns. They used slender trees as fence posts. Lumber from the trees was used to build chests to store blankets and woolens. Moths, which eat wool, do not like the strong aroma that the wood exudes. In places where cedar was the only tree available, some settlers built whole houses of the lumber from cedar trees. And of course, to this day many people bring home a cedar tree cut from their own land or that of a friend’s for a Christmas tree. My mother-in-law always had a cedar for her Christmas tree. Unfortunately, I was and still am allergic to cedar in large quantities, and I would spend Christmas Day sneezing and blowing my nose.
The two common cedar trees in Ellis and Navarro counties are the Eastern Red Cedar(Juniperus virginiana) andAshe Juniper(Juniperus ashei). Both are conifers. They are evergreen with needles that stay on the branches year-round and have seeds that are in cones. Trees that shed their leaves are called deciduous.
Both these cedars are so similar that it is hard to tell them apart. According to my Trees of Texas by Stan Tekiela, the Ashe juniper grows from 20 to 40 feet tall. Its shape is irregular with a short trunk that divides into several branches close to the ground. It then spreads out to have a rounded or flattened crown. The leaves, called needles, are ½ to1 ½ inches long and are made of tiny scale-like needles 1/8 inch long that overlap each other. The bark of this tree is grayish to reddish brown and can be pulled off in shreds. The cone is green turning to light blue to black and contains one seed. Some birds use the bark to line their nests, and the cones are eaten by many birds.
Our other cedar tree, the Eastern Red Cedar(Juniperus virginana), grows to a height of 25 to 50 feet. It grows in a pyramid shape, with a single trunk that may be crooked or leaning. The trunks of older trees will often be fluted or have folds or creases. These trees appear in the yards of older homes as ornamental trees. Their needles are 1 to 2 inches long made of scale-like needles 1/8 inch long. The bark is reddish brown, and may be peeled off to reveal reddish inner bark that is smooth. This tree has cones that are dark blue with a powdery coating. They contain 1 or 2 seeds.
Many land owners spend a good deal of time and money eradicating cedar trees from their pastures, because the trees are very successful at covering bare ground which can result from overgrazing, especially in drought conditions. Many of the wildfires of the last two years in Texas have involved large stands of cedars, which firefighters call “Fire on a stick”. Although early settlers found many uses for the wood, it may be considered a nuisance tree today. It should not be burned in a wood stove or fireplace, since it has resin which will coat the inside of the stove pipe or chimney and can catch fire. It does provide cover and food for certain birds, and helps prevent erosion on hillsides.