Friday, December 7, 2012

Red Cedars

A path through mature red cedars.
The cedar tree massacre has begun.

No, we are not taking down any of the giant red cedars. I love these trees and red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) in general. Standing inside a grove of red cedars is intensely comforting. I feel protected and safe. It is particularly lovely when snow is on the ground.

Snow covered red cedars
The fragrance of these trees takes me back to my childhood. Our Christmas trees were always red cedars from one of the pastures. The best part of having a tree, in my opinion, was always the family trip out to the pasture to select and cut the tree. We kids would ride to the pasture in the back of the pickup (I know, dangerous, but fun) bundled in heavy coats and blankets. We would wander the pasture for an hour or more, until the "perfect" tree was found and loaded. Then we'd ride home in the back of the pickup with the tree.

This tradition continued into our adulthoods, with us taking our own children along. We even continued after our children were grown, until most of us kids just didn't bring home trees anymore. Also, I moved a little further away, making the trek more combersome at a really busy time of year.

Still, I love those trees (not true cedars, but actually a juniper species). I love their fragrance and presence and beauty.

However, they are extremely invasive. They also make the soil more alkaline (which Kansas soils hardly need) and can crowd out most other plants. So, unless I want a field of cedars and a few other scraggly trees, some cutting back is in order.

There is an area somewhere between a quarter and half acre that I want to maintain as prairie on our hilltop, but it has become rife with little cedars. Recently, I began walking through the meadow with loppers, pruning shears and a pruning saw to cut out little cedars anywhere from a few inches tall to 6 feet tall. As I do this task, I do it with love for the cedars and the prairie. Prairie fires and herds of bison used to keep down the cedar population, but no more.

I've had to slow down on this task because my wrist started to feel tweaky. Knowing from painful experience how ignoring a little pain in order to push through a chore can turn into weeks of not being able to do anything, I've given it a rest.

Red cedars are incredibly hardy trees, thriving in tough soils, in dry conditions and providing food and shelter for wildlife. These trees come in male and female. Female trees bear small, blue "berries," which are actually cones, that many birds eat (which is why they get spread so widely). The male trees get golden brown "flowers" or cones or whatever they are at the tips of their branches that produce pollen. That is why perfectly healthy trees sometime look rather brown in the spring. I have seen clouds of pollen poof from the branches when birds land and move about.

Cedar "berries"

This year, the berries were more intensely blue than usual, and very abundant on some trees. I believe that the drought created the intense color, by condensing the sugars and pigments. I have enjoyed nibbling on these berries from time to time. They taste like they smell. The flavor is like an extremely intense rosemary, with a bit of bitterness and an aftermath of sweetness.

Berries of a different species of juniper are used medicinally, and the traits can be found somewhat in this species, as well. The berries treat various complaints, including, but not limited to, urinary tract infections and fighting off the herpes virus. Juniper berries are also used to flavor various cuisines (such as German sauerkraut) and a number of liquers and liquors. Juniper berry is the prominent flavor of gin.

Not one to waste abundance when I see it, I picked a good amount of these berries (pick in late autumn when ripe) to dry for future use. Whether I will actually use them remains to be seen. Maybe I will make some German sauerkraut with next spring's cabbage. In the meantime, I am slowly restoring the little prairie.


Meggie said...

Hello Sandra...What an incredible photo of the cardinal! I think I would be tempted to frame it,,,

Sandra M. Siebert said...

Thank you, Meggie. I am tempted to frame it, too. It is one of my favorite photos.