Monday, March 17, 2014

Cedar Flowers or Cones

Male red cedar cones produce pollen- REK
If you are around eastern red cedars in March you will see prolific clusters of these golden brown cones at the tips of leaves.  They are dense and only occur on half of the trees.  I initially assumed that these were the early version of the blue female cones which occur in the fall.  I was only half right, they are early cones but they occur on the male trees.

Male cones cover the branches- REK
Cedars are dioecious (separate male and female trees) and do not produce flowers with petals but rather cones. Tiny male cones form in the fall, already holding their pollen.  These male pollen cones mature over winter into or golden brown, papery berry-like cones at the tips of leaves.  Aside from the white linear markings, you would be hard pressed to know that these were actually cones.  They release pollen in March through May which spreads to the tiny female cones, and incidentally to our nasal mucosa where it can trigger hay fever and asthma symptoms in those who are allergic.

J. virginiana seed cones and female flower (red arrow)- Jim Mason
The female seed cone flowers also first develop in the fall, tiny dots 1/16th of an inch long.  They open in March, ready to receive the pollen of nearby male trees.  The tiny pollen grains from the fruit of this mating develop in August and September, coexisting with the flowers (see above) when the "the female cones become fleshy, waxy berrylike, about ¼ inch long, dark blue, covered with a white, waxy coating, globe-shaped; flesh sweet, resinous, with odor of gin."MDC  The cones will contain usually1-2 but up to 4 yellow-brown round seeds which may be pitted.

Since cedars are aggressive early colonizers whose natural control, fire, has been largely eliminated, they tend to become invasive in glades, untended fields and roadsides.  This supports the definition of a weed as "a plant growing in the wrong place," as defined by the bipedal mammals that have gained control of North America.  On the other hand, they are valuable as windbreaks, particularly in the Great Plains where there is little else to slow the wind and drifting snow.  As evergreens, they remain a wind barrier in winter when other species have lost their leaves.

This can be a mixed blessing, especially when they take over dormant fields.  Cedars are  frequently seen along fence rows where their seeds are planted by robins who love their "berries" and pass them along while wire-sitting, waiting for their next worm.  These cones are consumed also by cedar waxwings, finches and a variety of other birds, as well as gleaned from the forest floor by rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, and opossums.s Cedars as evergreens also provide shelter for many bird species during the winter as well as nesting sites in the summer. FCPS

One final plus of cedars is their positive effect on barren soil such as our hills denuded of deciduous trees from aggressive harvesting in the 19th century and subsequent fire suppression.  Cedars tolerate highly acid soil and rapidly alkalize it because of the high calcium content of its shed foliage.  This can increase earthworm activity, and they in turn incorporate organic matter as well as aerate the soil.

Mature female cones

Should you want to propagate cedars (unlikely here in the Ozarks), the USDA has information for you.  
Detailed information is available at this US Forest Service site.
Thanks to Jim Mason of the Great Plains Nature Center of Wichita, Kansas for the photograph.


  1. Great post! Hard to notice the flowers on conifers sometimes... certainly not as showy as the angiosperms!

    I was also told once that you can tell soil is poor if only cedars are growing in it...


    1. Certainly in the Ozarks, the more deficient the soil, the more cedars as a virtual monoculture. As fire frequency decreased in the early 20th century, the cedars took over. Bad for collared lizards but good for the pencil industry for a while. Any monoculture, accidental or deliberate (think Roundup-ready corn) is a step backwards for the planet.