Mountain Cedar: Friend or Foe?

Mountain cedar or Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) is the dominant native tree species of the Texas Hill County. Cedars are an evergreen shrub or small tree getting to be about 25 - 30 feet tall. The official juniper “Big Tree” stands 41 feet tall is just up the road in Comal County. Opinions about junipers are mixed. They are often considered ‘water hogs’ fit only to be eradicated and ‘cedar fever’ victims in the winter definitely have a negative attitude about them. But mention junipers to friends of Golden-cheeked Warblers and they’ll speak of reduced juniper dominated habitat and the endangered species’ need for bark strips from mature trees for their nests. Regardless of the views about mountain cedar, the fact is that juniper has numerous uses for both people and wildlife.

From December to February the male trees turn golden brown with copious quantities of pollen just waiting to be dispersed. Later female trees will develop the familiar blue berries that are actually miniature woody cones. These astringent fruits are eaten by many species of wildlife, including robins, bobwhite quail, curved bill thrashers, gray fox, raccoons, ring-tailed cats, rock squirrels and armadillos. You can buy the dried berries in most any grocery store. In medium to large quantities, they are toxic to humans but one or two berries may be used as a spice in meat (including wild game), stews or sauerkraut.

Cedar wood is very hard and full of natural oils that make it resistant to rot and insect infestation. Texas Naturalist Roy Bedichek describes an encounter with a cedar cutter in his Adventures with a Texas Naturalist. “He told me that he couldn’t do anything but cut cedar, since that was all had had ever done except to farm a little. I found that he was eighty-six years old and that here in this locality his father had put him to cutting cedar when he was only ten. Seventy-six years cutting cedar!” Cedar posts are a valuable fencing material and the wood is also a good fuel. Other uses for the wood include furniture, pencils, small woodenware articles, cedar shavings and construction materials.

Volatile oils from fruits and wood of some juniper species are used as a flavoring for gin and other species yield a scent for perfumes, soaps, and cosmetics. Native Americans used the oil as an insect repellant. Local companies distill oil from the wood and market it as cedarwood oil. Other companies produce construction materials from cedar flakes that are a by product of the cedar oil industry.

The bark, roots, twigs, cones, and leaves of cedars have been used to produce brown, tan and gold dyes. Cedar leaf ashes were used by the Navajo as a mordant – an additive that causes a fiber to accept dye more readily – when dying their wool. Stringy bark fibers can be used for weaving and stitching.

When thinking of wildlife, the most notable ‘cedar-phile’ is the Golden-cheeked Warbler. These tiny hill country breeders construct their nests from the long, shaggy strips of old growth junipers. Roy Bedichek wrote in 1947 of his concern about extensive cedar clearing for range management and the subsequent loss of Golden-cheeked warble habitat. Aside from animals that eat the berries, goats and deer may browse the foliage. Of course, cedar breaks provide shelter for wildlife as well as nesting habitat for many birds such as chipping sparrows and mockingbirds.

In the end, it’s really not necessary to classify mountain cedar as a friend or foe. But it is important to recognize its importance to people for many reasons and the valuable role it plays in the life of Golden-cheeked warblers as well as other wildlife.

Male mountain cedar
with cones with yellow pollen
Photo by Peggy Spring ©
  Female mountain cedar
with blue berries (cones)
Photo by Peggy Spring ©
  Wooden spoon carved from cedar
Photo by Peggy Spring ©

Bedichek, Roy. (1947) Adventures with a Texas Naturalist by Roy Bedichek. ISBN 0292703112. LCC 47031272
Tull, Delena. (1999) Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. ISBN 0292781644 LCC 98041330
Cox PW and Leslie P. (1988) Texas Trees. Friendly Guide. Corona Publishing Company. San Antonio Tx. ISBN 0931722675 LCC 87072604 (Patty (Leslie) Pasztor is a former naturalist for Friedrich)
By Peggy Spring, Park Naturalist, City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department Natural Areas