Thursday, March 2, 2023

Cedar Pollen

Male cedar cones - Drew Albert

"In the Spring, a young man's fancy, lightly turns to thoughts of Love SNEEZING!" (with apologies to Tennyson.)

This is the time of year when male eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) release their clouds of love in the form of pollen which you can see in this video.  In Texas, this is referred to as "cedar fever" which is discussed in this Texas A&M link.  Their onset occurs earlier in Texas due to their warmer climate.  Our Master Naturalist Drew Albert suggests that "After a dry, warm February day yesterday with mid-70s and afternoon humidity dropping below 20% this isn't uncommon after colder weather." The video above was shot on March 12, 2020 which supports the weather theory.

Cedar pollen is distributed by the wind and doesn't seem to care if it lands on a receptive female cone or a human nostril.  When it hits our noses, the reaction is rapid and can produce symptoms over several days.  Not everyone is affected every time.  When I demonstrated in the video the pollen clouds drifting downwind of the WOLF students, I had no reaction in spite of my usual seasonal allergies.

They have been accused of worse.  "Among the many things old-time Ozarkers used to believe brought bad luck was the transplanting of cedar trees. Folklore collector Vance Randolph described several examples of people refusing to move cedar trees because they thought it would bring an early death to them or someone in their family. It was also considered "very bad luck" to bring cedar boughs into the home — except during Christmas, and then, they had to be removed completely before 12 a.m. on January 6 (Epiphany)."  MDC Discover Nature

Our red cedars are native but aggressive growers, early colonizers of bare ground. After the cedar cone on the female tree is pollinated it turns a waxy blue and contains one to three seeds.  The seed cones fall from the trees and are also dispersed by many birds.  Cedars are especially sensitive to fire and the end of burning the glades in the past has turned our historic "balds" into hirsute hilltops.  Some "wind breaks" along fence lines are actually cedars, planted by perching birds, that escaped the blades of a mower.  Abandoned fields and glades now are covered with cedars, creating the expense of clearing them to the landowner.  

Glade restoration - 2000

There is a market for cedar, but a large number of mature trees are needed to make the harvest worthwhile.  When we cut our first glade restoration around 2000, loggers were happy to cut and haul large cedar logs for free.  Our second glade restoration had smaller timber and we had to pay for extra help.  

There was a time around 1908 when the pencil industry developed an appetite for cedar as told in a News-Leader article.

"Ozarkers had other uses for their timber, though. In 1908 the American Pencil Company of New York built a pencil factory in Branson. The pencils were made from cedar logs. Cedar was another locally abundant tree. Thousands of cedar logs were cut into rectangular slats measuring 3" x 3" x 8". The slats were then shipped across the country to factories to be made into pencils. Eventually, the supply of cedar trees was exhausted and the American Pencil Company Factory was moved to California."

Juniper Hairstreak
So is the spread of cedars good or bad?  As we tell our 5th grade WOLF students, the answer to that question is usually "it depends" and even mosquitoes have a place in the food chain.  In this case, cedar cones (often called berries) are nutritious and feed robins, cedar waxwings, and a wide variety of other birds feasting on their dense carbohydrate and fat load.  Many insects also feed on them including caterpillars of our favorite Juniper Hairstreak.  Meanwhile the branches and evergreen leaves provide shelter for a variety of birds as well as nesting sites for Cooper's Hawks, Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds, as well as many other smaller species.

Red cedar spittlebug - REK
Cedars also host other species such as cedar apple rust galls, and cute tiny red cedar spittlebugs.  Perhaps the strangest example is an invasive Callery pear that we have growing out of the trunk of a neighbor's cedar shown in this prior blog.

Another strange thing I have photographed in a cedar tree is this one below, found inside a living but hollowed out cedar on our neighbor's land.  I have tentatively identified it as a new invasive species, Barbaria kipferiae.*

Newly reported "invasive species"
*Special thanks to our editor for her skills with words and as a model.