Red Cedar vs Leyland Cypress

Plant This, Not That: New Jersey Natives Edition

Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana,
vs Leyland Cypress.

Cedar Waxwing feeding on Red Cedar berry

I really enjoyed Genevieve Schmidt’s recent California Natives edition of “Plant This, Not That,”and I’d like to share a New Jersey example.  If only we could reach the many nurseries, landscapers and homeowners who ignore our natives.

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Red Cedars in Higbee Beach dunes along Delaware Bay

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These Red Cedars lined an old stagecoach trail which today is a major road

As wildlife gardeners we all know the importance of evergreens in our yards.  They offer year-round cover, places for birds and other wildlife to escape from predators and bad weather, places to rest or to roost in the evenings and through the night, and safe places to nest.  It is a terrific bonus if that evergreen also offers important food to wildlife.

In southern New Jersey my favorite evergreen is Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, for about a zillion reasons.  Red Cedars are very diverse.  Some grow tall and slender while others are as full as a spreading oak.  Each shape is unique and lovely, offering a solid mass of rich dark green in the landscape year round.

This tree thrives just about anywhere in South Jersey.  It’s quite happy in poor, dry soils, or even in sand.  Some gnarled, wind-swept specimens in the remaining beachfront dunes are hundreds of years old.  They pioneer fallow fields and add accents to deciduous woods.

The first roads into South Jersey, old stagecoach trails, were lined with huge Red Cedars.  These ancient sentinels remain in only a few places, thanks to tree lovers who stood up for them as roads were widened or straightened.

Planted along a property line, Red Cedars can make the loveliest and most wildlife-friendly living fence, also serving as a terrific privacy fence.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk attracted to songbirds in our yard

A Red Cedar’s lush growth offers many deep, dark, and safe recesses.  Untold thousands upon thousands of songbirds have escaped a hungry hawk (like this Sharp-shinned Hawk) by diving into a dense Red Cedar.  Many species of  birds choose them as safe nest sites.  During bad weather they offer life-giving shelter.

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Saw-whet Owl in its daytime roost (hiding in a Red Cedar)

During spring and fall migration, many migrant birds roost in these lovely evergreens, safely surviving another night (or day).  As an owl aficionado, I’ve enjoyed searching for, finding, and observing (from a safe distance) many wintering owls over the years.  My search pattern always includes Red Cedars (since they provide some of the best cover) near the edge of a saltmarsh or meadow (good feeding habitat for a hungry owl).  Many of the owls I’ve found have been tucked deep into a dense Red Cedar.

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Monarchs roosting for the night in a Red Cedar at Cape May Point

Many of my favorite memories involve Red Cedars.  Some fall evenings hundreds or even thousands of migrating Monarchs roost in Red Cedars in the dunes at the southern tip of New Jersey, tucked out of the wind safely for the night.

Red Cedar fruits are so thick on female trees that the tree may appear blue. The male tree has a brown cast when covered with its tiny cones.

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Red Cedar berries on female tree

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Tiny cones on male tree

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Mid-November American Robins and Cedar Waxwings come to the Red Cedar dining tables in our yard

As I write this in mid-November, clouds of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings have descended on the berry-laden Red Cedars in our yard.

I’ve watched thirty two different species of birds feed on these fruits, including big flocks of Cedar Waxwings (so named because they favor Red Cedar fruits), American Robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds.  Northern Flicker, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Mockingbird, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Hermit Thrush, Northern Cardinal, Purple Finch, Baltimore Oriole, Summer Tanager, and many other species also depend on these fruits.  Thirty-two different species is an impressive number of birds that benefit from this tree.  The fruits are evident by early summer and linger through winter.  These fruits pull in hungry migrants throughout the fall.  Uneaten fruits are a key survival food for wintering birds.

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32 different species of birds feed on Red Cedar berries in NJ

The many different species of birds (and good numbers of each) that feast on Red Cedar berries spread Red Cedars across the landscape as the seeds pass through their system.  Because of this, Red Cedars are often thought of as “weeds” here in South Jersey by most nurseries, landscapers, and home owners.  Instead, I think of each new Red Cedar seedling as a gift from the birds, a “freebie” to be cherished and as one of the most desirable native trees.

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‘Olive’ Juniper Hairstreaks lay their eggs only on Red Cedar

Doug Tallamy shares that 37 native butterflies and moths lay their eggs on Red Cedar, including Juniper Hairstreak.  I’ve counted up to ten Juniper Hairstreaks on the Mountain Mint and Boneset in our garden.  It’s always fun and poignant to realize that this beautiful butterfly is so abundant in our garden because of the Red Cedars that both we and the birds have planted.

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Line of Leland Cypress trees on the left (dying); thriving Red Cedar on the right (a male tree with a brownish cast)

In comparison Leyland Cypress is not native to the East, but instead a hybrid of two West Coast species (Monterey Cypress and Alaska Cedar).  It offers no fruits for hungry birds and is not an option as a host plant for any of our native butterflies and moths.  On top of that, Leyland Cypress is not hardy and isn’t even long-lived here.  They are shallow rooted and poorly adapted to areas with hot summers.  In other words, they are a waste of space.

So, plant Red Cedar, not Leyland Cypress, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

© 2011 – 2012, Pat Sutton. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    I love red cedars and have planted them and have let the wild ones grow, for all the reasons you state here. But they do get cedar apple rust and it means apple trees and hawthorns and serviceberries can’t thrive here. Rust doesn’t outright kill those flowering trees, but it does disfigure them, so I don’t grow them, which is discouraging. The junipers are not harmed by the rust (it’s ugly though), and they do spread and grow and provide wonderful habitat.
    Laurrie recently posted..Why I Don’t Weed

    • says

      Hi Laurrie, yes Cedar-Apple Rust is part of the package if you have Red Cedars and apple trees in close proximity. During spring rains when the galls swell into orange gelatinous globs I find them quite intriguing. The Oklahoma extension service fact sheet on Cedar-Apple Rust suggests that in a backyard situation one could remove all cedar-apple rust galls by pruning them out of the cedar trees in late winter. Of course this wouldn’t help if there are other Red Cedars in your neighborhood. My Serviceberry still forms fruits, they’re just spotted & not perfect fruits (due to the Cedar Apple Rust).
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Cedar vs Leyland Cypress

  2. zora says

    wonderful article…loved it! We just moved to a place on the N. Ga. East Tn. border that has about 40 Leland! I understand why the former owners planted them about 20 yrs. ago, but I will need to start planting something to replace them soon. How far south will the cedars grow?

    • says

      Zora, Red Cedars are native throughout the East, south to Florida through Texas. “Trees of the Southeastern US,” by Duncan and Duncan shares that Red Cedar occurs in “usually well-drained soils in the open, rock outcrops, stable dunes.” Go for it!
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Cedar vs Leyland Cypress

  3. Stacy Paetzel says

    I agree that Red Cedar is better than the Leyland for all the reasons you list. However, if rated on deer tolerance, the Red Cedar is much more succeptable to damage. Something to keep in mind if you need an effective screening plant. Ilex opaca can also be good alternative to Red Cedar in certain situations where deer damage is of concern.

    • says

      Hi Stacy, we have a healthy, abundant deer population here too. Yes, deer do love to browse Red Cedars, but then they eat just about everything here. In the wild, some are heavily browsed and others seem to be left alone. Protecting newly planted young cedars with fencing till they get a certain size should do the trick.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Cedar vs Leyland Cypress

      • says

        Stacy, your suggestion to also consider American Holly as an effective screening plant is spot on. We’ve planted a number of them on our property and many more have been planted for us by the birds. Here 13 birds feed on American Holly berries (as opposed to the 32 species that feed on Red Cedar). They’re my 2nd favorite evergreen.
        Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Cedar vs Leyland Cypress

  4. says

    Pat, What a wonderful look at the joys of planting red cedar. Your photos are truly amazing, the one with the robins and the cedar waxwings dining on the berries should be on every red cedar plant tag in every nursery. When it comes to the reasons why it’s important to plant natives, that picture is worth a 1,000 words.
    Debbie Roberts recently posted..Wordless Wednesday ~ Touchable Texture

  5. says

    Pat, Here in Middle Tennessee our only naturally occurring conifer is Juniperus virginiana. They are fantastic pioneer trees and we do have to make sure they don’t turn a meadow into an early forest. But, I do love them~Right now, J virginiana ‘Grey Owl’ is one of my favorite cultivars. It’s lower growing and has many uses in a garden! It’s disappointing that they aren’t regularly stocked at more nurseries. gail
    Gail recently posted..In Appreciation Of November Blooms

    • says

      Hi Gail — yes they are great pioneer trees (as are so many of the trees, shrubs, and vines favored by birds . . . as the birds plant them hither and yon . . . including in our meadows). Because of this I’ve never explored the cultivars. ‘Grey Owl’ sounds intriguing. As a cultivar has it lost anything (in other words are the fruits as favored by the birds)? Thanks for sharing this.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Cedar vs Leyland Cypress

  6. says

    Excellent. I especially loved the photo of junipers among the sand dunes.

    I recently put up a post on planting maple-leaved viburnum instead of the invasive European burning bush euonymus on my blog Please consider it a Southern Ontario version of Plant This, Not That.

    Your post has inspired me to champion a couple of other overlooked natives. I’ll get to work on it….

  7. says

    We hate red cedars here in Nebraska. They take over the prairie in a matter of years. Sure, great cover and berries for birds. I back up to a small acreage and they have dozens of them 10′ tall (of course, they don’t do anything with their lot, so no wonder). Cedars are crowding out native deciduous trees in small stands around the neighborhood, too. They grow fast, wide, and tall.
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Last Fall Images / Imagine the Last Fall

    • says

      Hi Ben, we have some lovely meadows here in NJ too that can quickly be overwhelmed by Red Cedars, Sweet Gums, Black Cherry, Bayberry, Wax Myrtle, Winged Sumac and a host of other lovely native trees & shrubs that the birds feed on. The birds come into the meadows (& in your case prairies) to feed on wildflower and grass seeds or insects and pass seeds from these favored foods that they’ve eaten nearby, and voila . . . up come some hugely beneficial natives . . . freebies that the birds have planted. In order to keep our meadows as meadows we mow them each late winter / early spring. Sometimes we’ve got to dig out trees and shrubs that the mower misses. I’ll bet similar management efforts are utilized in Nebraska to keep prairies as prairies. Succession happens! But I can’t imagine hating key natives that are keeping birds alive because they pop up in a prairie or a meadow.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Canna – fall care & winter storage

      • Stephanie Cleveland says

        That’s such a patient and kind reply. I’m in Georgia, and goodness, I only WISH we had masses of red cedars invading natural areas that nobody is “doing anything” (what should they be doing exactly, if not growing beneficial trees for wildlife…) with. Here, instead of all the lovely native plants you mention, we end up with masses and masses of Chinese privet, which the birds eat because it’s been planted in suburbia and then poop out elsewhere. Say what you will about a cedar tree, when you cut it down, usually it’s done. With all this privet, it chokes out our natives, and you have to paint the stumps with pesticide to stand a chance of it not coming back. It’s very sad :-( I’d take “invasive” sweetgums and cedar trees over privet any day!

  8. says

    Terrific article Pat. I couldn’t believe it when I found out that here in Northwest Ohio, the Eastern Red Cedar is our ONLY native evergreen. A little bit north in Michigan there are wonderful stands of native pine. A little bit east and there are some white pine. But here the only one is this wonderful, but ignored cedar. Until I read your article I didn’t know there are separate male and female plants. For the past several years, I’ve been nurturing several little cedar sprouts that have popped up in the yard. Can’t wait for them to get to fruit producing size. This evergeen sounds like a real bird magnet. Thanks.
    Hal Mann recently posted..UGH – Lawns

    • says

      Hi Hal, yes our “ignored” evergreen, the Eastern Red Cedar is a gem that, hopefully, through websites like this we can help promote . . . and, in doing so, benefit wildlife. May your cedar sprouts grow up to entertain you as much as mine have entertained me and provide key food & cover to so much.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Canna – fall care & winter storage

  9. says

    When I first moved to this section of FL, I chose leyland cypress to get a hedge started since that was what the big box store had to offer and I didn’t know any better. Then I started to attract pairs of bluebirds and learned about native plants and that red cedar is a favorite fruit for the bluebirds. Needless to say, I have since purchased a red cedar that is native to FL which has more beauty than the leyland. I plan to purchase a second soon! you are so right….why can’t the nurseries just provide the natives rather than others? That way, even thoses who aren’t “in the know” would be choosing the right options!
    Loret recently posted..Pond Prank

    • says

      Hi Loret, seems so simple and so logical for nurseries (and other places like the big box stores) to sell natives, doesn’t it. But often there’s nothing simple or logical about what nurseries sell — they seem to be striving for exotic when local, happy-to-be-here, thriving-in-the-local-environment natives would be such better choices and so much better for the environment, wildlife, and us! We can make a difference by asking each and every time for native plants — by creating the demand.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Canna – fall care & winter storage

  10. Gardensage says

    What a great article. I live in Central Texas and our property has many red cedars. I love them for all the reasons you mention. The seedlings are easy to transplant in the landscape and they grow fast.

    • says

      Thanks so much for the Central Texas Red Cedar feedback. I continue to be amazed when people turn up their noses at Red Cedar and instead choose to plant a non-native evergreen that might as well be plastic. Red Cedar is a lovely evergreen AND so beneficial to wildlife. Keep enjoying them and all they attract on your property.

  11. Stephanie Cleveland says

    “They are shallow rooted and poorly adapted to areas with hot summers,” and yet, they’re all over my subdivision here in Eastern GA. That’s Georgia, where hot summers are us!! I’ve gotten to a point where I grimace whenever I hear the name of one of these trees now. So many people seem to plant them in massive, uniform rows as privacy barriers. I also feel like they’re kind of these weird “status symbol” trees, sort of like, I guess because I see them in front of affluent looking homes so often. They’re not a hideous tree in and of themselves, but, as you say, they have almost zero value to wildlife, and after you start to see so many of them (and especially crowed and bunched together, some places starting to rust) they begin to become hideous looking, at least to me. Who wants to plant the same tired boring thing everybody else does because it’s what they sell at Lowe’s anyway?


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