The RoVing Naturalist
By Dennis Prichard
How some plants get their common names, I’ll never know. For example, all the days I was growing up in Oklahoma I had heard those shrubby evergreens called cedars. There was no reason to think of them otherwise. You might be able to relate to how I felt when in college I finally learned that everybody had been wrong about cedars all those years. There are no true cedars growing wild in the United States.
Now this was a stunning blow to everything I held to be true. If I couldn’t believe cedars to be cedars, what could I believe? My frustration was soon eased a bit when it was explained as a technical mix-up in jargon. You see, botanists the world over have given a certain type of plant the name of “cedar.” These trees grow in the Middle East. In fact, it is the national symbol of Lebanon. The only true cedars in North America have been brought over and planted as ornamentals. I know of one large Tree of Lebanon planted on a national wildlife refuge before the refuge was established.
Our “cedar” is more correctly named “juniper,” as its scientific name Juniperus confirms. These evergreens are widespread from Alaska to Mexico with many different species occurring in specialized localities. One of the widest ranges of any juniper, Juniperus virginiana, or Virginia Juniper, is found over half of our continent. The common name of red cedar doesn’t help our nomenclature confusion any. The American West boasts many species with similar misnomers. So much for clear, concise explanations.
Where my wife and I are presently volunteering there lives a true Texas bird. It nests in no other state than Texas because it uses a specific type of cedar, uh, juniper, for nesting material. The Ash Juniper bark is stripped off for the golden-cheeked warbler’s nest. It will only use the Ash Juniper bark and no other will do. Therefore it is endangered due to being unable to adapt to other building materials.
These usually hardy trees are found in a variety of places, but specific ones like specific types of soils or where available moisture eliminates other competitors. Even though they have a tendency to spread over an area rather quickly, most junipers have a low tolerance for fire. If used wisely, fire can be an effective tool to control the unwanted spread of these evergreens.
Have you ever noticed how the junipers seem to grow in rows along the roads? This is partly due to birds’ preference for the berries. The pulp is digested from around the hard seeds, which are then deposited under the birds’ favorite perches – fences and power lines. Quail and wild turkeys will eat these berries, but crows, bluebirds and especially cedar waxwings dearly relish the bluish fruits. Bears, coyotes, opossums and foxes also make themselves a meal of the berries, while deer, elk and pronghorns browse the twigs.
Native Americans used the berries as a substitute for coffee and butter depending on how it was prepared. Later, the pioneers discovered its flavor in a tea, but they used it in small amounts only as it tends to irritate the kidneys. Nowadays these berries flavor the alcoholic beverage gin. How about that! Have a juniper and tonic on me! After all, what’s in a name?
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.