(cedar, red cedar, eastern red cedar)
Cupressaceae (cypress family)
Zones: 3-10 (all of the South)
First of all, what we all call cedar is not a true cedar but a juniper instead. True cedars belong to the genus Cedrus. Our native red "cedar" belongs to the cypress family which does not include the bald cypress. It is not a true cypress and has its own family. An honest, true cypress would belong to the genus Cupressus. See why you're a gardener and not a botanist.
How many cedars are there marking abandoned homesites, lining avenues, and standing guard at cemeteries in the South today? They're everywhere. The fence post guys haven't even made a dent in them. The cedar ranks right up there with the magnolia and the liveoak as popular evergreen trees in the South. Although it may be less popular in urban gardens, it is probably the king of evergreens in rural areas. It was historically used as a Christmas tree in many areas of the South. Back when my dad was in charge of cutting a "Charlie Brown" tree for the Grant family, it was what we always had. Thanks to the affection of its needles to my mom's carpet, we switched to loblolly pine. Today I cultivate leyland cypress for our trees, so that holiday visitors will think we have store bought stuff for a change. One year when I wasn't around to cut us a tree, my mother went into town to the christmas tree farm to get us our first bought tree. She looked for hours but couldn't find one as ugly as we were used to and went home empty handed. My dad was forced to make his last "acceptable" emergency selection from the pasture.
In a letter to the editor of the Natchez Daily Courier on October 28, 1854, Thomas Affleck tries my same futile bit of botanical education when he says..."The cedars are very beautiful. And, by the way, what we know as the Red Cedar, is a Juniper..." He goes on to add..."The Junipers, headed by our own beautiful native, the so-called Red Cedar, (J. virginiana,) are indispensable. In the "Red Cedar" there is a great diversity of foliage and habit of growth; some being open and loose in habit, others upright and compact. The latter I have always selected from the seed-bed. They should have room to grow, and be allowed to sweep the ground with their branches; not pruned up into the likeness of a gigantic broom!" If I seem to overquote this letter it's because he does a fabulous job of detailing the early use of plant material in the Natchez area.
Most of the early nurseries in the South carried the red cedar. The ones that didn't, probably knew that their customers would just dig them from the wild. Early southern nursery catalogs which I noticed offering red cedar were Affleck's Southern Nurseries, in Washington, Mississippi in 1851-52; Langdon Nurseries, near Mobile, Alabama in 1881-82; Denison Nurseries, in Denison, Texas in 1885-86; Mission Valley Nurseries, in Nursery, Texas in 1888; Waldheim Nursery, in Boerne, Texas in 1895-96; and Frank Vestal-Florist and Nurseryman, in Little Rock Arkansas in 1896.
I'm sure everybody realizes that our native "cedar" is very easy to grow. They grow beautifully on fence rows throughout the South. Propagation is from seed or you may dig them from the woods or the fence rows, with permission of course. Don't dig mine in Arcadia though. I use them to make posts for fences, bird houses, bottle trees, and such.