Red Cedar Trees More A Nuisance Then A Help

Sunday, November 26th 2006, 3:20 pm
By: News On 6

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) Back in the Dust Bowl days, the Prairie States Forest Project encouraged people to plant red cedar trees as windbreaks, or shelterbelts, as they were called, to keep the middle of the country from blowing away.

It worked, but those red cedars went on to do a lot more.

``They're a tremendous nuisance,'' said Oklahoma State University Extension Educator Roger Williams. ``Where they were used as shelterbelts, they were good for that, but they're one of those trees that grow real well where they're not wanted.''

Deforestation may not be such a great thing for rain forests, but as far as red cedars are concerned, Williams highly suggests getting rid of them before they proliferate.

``They were naturally controlled by fire for years,'' said Williams. ``But now that we've taken fire out of the equation, they've gotten out of control. They tend to choke out everything else.''

Juniperus virginiana is actually a juniper, unrelated to real cedars, but it is called a cedar anyway.

Red cedars can grow as high as 40 feet, but adjust to shade conditions by remaining dormant until the other trees around them have lost their leaves.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, just one acre of eastern red cedars can suck up as much as 55,000 gallons of water per year from the surrounding area.

But red cedars aren't completely evil; they do have some uses.

They have fibrous root systems that make them effective tools against soil erosion. Usually they're some of the first trees that pop up in recently cleared areas, like strip mines. In the South, red cedar is a popular choice for Christmas trees.

The name of Louisiana's capital city, Baton Rouge, translates in French to ``red stick,'' supposedly because American Indians used red cedars to make poles used as tribal territory boundary markers. At least one of those cedar poles, evidently, was in Louisiana.

Back before the ball point pen days, red cedar wood was used to make pencils. It's also the stuff that tends to keep moths from eating your wool sweaters.

But on the downside, besides choking out the growth of other plants, red cedars carry cedar-apple rust.

``We cut it down and burn it,'' said Nick Hand, manager of Northland Farms nursery. ``It's a host for all kinds of nasty things we don't want.''

David Morrison, production consultant for Park Hill Nursery, agreed that red cedars are not the best thing to have around, especially if you're trying to grow apples.

``Cedar-apple rust is the big one,'' he said. ``If you have an apple tree within a half-mile of a cedar tree, it'll just be eaten up with cedar-apple rust.''

Morrison said nonnative invasive species of plants, like the red cedar is here, are a big issue in the nursery business right now.

``It's another one of those well-intended things that got out of control,'' he said.

Williams said that while most of the red cedars in Cherokee County are found in rocky areas, other parts of the state have been covered with out-of-control cedar growth.

Williams has seen stands of red cedars so thick, just walking through them was almost impossible.

``We're not to that point yet,'' he said. ``But if it gets a toehold, it can be a mess.''

So what can be done about red cedars?

Pruning shears can take down a really small red cedar, Williams said. A chain saw might be needed for bigger ones, and a tractor, to pull the trees up by the roots, is the next step.

``Luckily, it's one of those trees that, if you cut it off at ground level, you can get rid of it,'' said Williams.