Cedars jump out of the woodwork
Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
The irreversible laws of nature have, by now, rendered most trees and shrubs bereft of leaves and naked as jaybirds. Only the evergreens remain unembarrassed and they will command our attention until the onset of spring.
There are exotic genera of such all over our gardens, brought in through the centuries from Japan, China, Europe and other places. The natives in the hinterlands, however, contribute as much to the cheer of winter green and are just as valuable on their own merits.
Just about chief among these is our cedar or red cedar. Neither moniker is technically correct, since our cedars are actually junipers, Juniperus virginiana to be exact. It is indeed a native of Virginia and just about all the rest of the contiguous 48 states as well. It and some subspecies range from Maine to Florida and well into the west.
Red cedars are rife here, and there are in some places whole climax thickets of them. An acre or two of ancient red cedars with trunks two feet in diameter creates a picturesque ambiance that cannot be matched with any other woody plant. Trees that big have to be old and, unfortunately, such settings are disappearing with the demand for cedar lumber.
Old cemeteries, where stripling trees were planted a century or more ago, offer the best chance to observe groves of them.
Young trees are plentiful, and the old custom of using them for Christmas trees continues, even since the advent of shipped-in fir, pine and spruce trees sold at retail outlets.
I remember, as a boy, seeing cedar trees leaning against the outside of Marshall’s Store (located at the corner of East Wood Street and Fairgrounds Road in Paris) in December for sale as Christmas trees.
We always cut our own tree. My father worked for TVA as a field engineer and he always had a fine specimen picked out well before Christmas. His criteria were exacting. The tree had to be the right height, of course, reaching just short of the ceiling. Mother always wanted a skinny tree and Daddy a fat one.
He would always search for a tree just inside a wooded area, but not in too dense shade. With enough sunlight to fill out the tree fully, but not enough to scald the south side of it, it would be dark green all around, not just on the north side.
If a tree could be found with blue “berries” (botanically cones; junipers are conifers) so much the better, but that was rare. Young trees do not cone like older ones. In fact, only a small minority of cedars cone well, even in old age.
We never brought our tree into the house until about a week before Christmas. What a smell it produced, while thusly fresh! The sense of smell is the most evocative of our senses, we are told, and I believe it.
The tree, along with oranges, peppermint candy and the acrid aroma of firecracker smoke even yet fills an olfactory memory book for me.
Many named varieties of red cedars are available in nurseries and all prove to be of easy culture. Wild trees, dug when small, are easy to transplant as well.
There are, however, among the latter, myriad forms with desirable (and otherwise) traits. When a young tree is dug it is difficult to tell what it will look like when older.
Some native cedars are fastigiate, narrow and pencil thin. Others can prove to grow wider than tall. A good clue as to which is which is to observe other, older, nearby trees, if there are any.
Cedars tend to run in coveys of similar form, but not always. A small tree that has side branches at a sharp upward angle from the trunk will prove to be more fastigiate than one with branches at an angle more toward 90 degrees.
There’s no reason that a nice form of native red cedar should not be domesticated for home use on spacious grounds. They grow too big to place near a dwelling or other building.
With a cold and wet October with near record rain, November went into reverse. It was one of the mildest and driest Novembers ever, with only 1 1/4 inch of rain in our gauge for the whole month. The result, in the aggregate, was just about a “normal” two months.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 12.15.09
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path