Plant This, Not That: New Jersey Natives Edition
Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana,
vs Leyland Cypress.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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