Cedar/Juniper: AAAAAAH! (choo)

Is this how YOU feel about cedar?

The Cedars are coming

Current pollen maps reveal the entire Southern US blazing yellow with high levels of pollen. Even higher on the density scale, the heart of Texas is ember-red and orange (nature’s warning colors). The primary perpetrator: “Cedar/Juniper.” I’ve newly discovered my allergy, and I know I’m not alone in my suffering.

Coincidentally(??), the Native Plant Society of Texas has re-circulated two articles defending one of the species we call “cedar/juniper.” (Mountain cedar – does it deserve such disdain? and Mountain cedar – water guzzler or not?)

I don’t (yet) know my ashei from my virginiana, but I know where to start (Wikipedia and the “plant bible”). My guess based on their ranges is that the pollen blowing in from the southwest is from Mountain cedar (Juniperus ashei), but the cedars I typically see are Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana), which I’ve started calling ERCs in my field notes. In this entry and until I’m more familiar with them, I’ll use the layman’s terms interchangeably: cedar/juniper.

Even before the sneezing and itchy eyes started, I was intrigued by junipers as I noted my Impressions of the Drive to West Texas. I saw growth patterns and associations I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered how junipers historically fit in the ecosystem.

Junipers seem to march in tight formation onto prairies, belly-crawl into Cross Timbers forests and choke out undergrowth, and generally muscle their way into areas and spread. Just take a look at land turned from prairie to ranch to available real estate in Dallas/Fort Worth suburbs. Most sites look like Christmas-tree lots.

So I have a negative reaction to scenes like the one above (which I photographed on a seed-collecting trip). To me, these trees represent ecological encroachment – change for the worse. I’m exploring whether that’s a fair assessment.

But whether ERCs are useful, native, pushy, pretty, allergy-inducing or not, I caution myself that management decisions shouldn’t be solely human-centric. After all, as I often point out on hikes I lead, even poison ivy has a place in the ecosystem. We don’t extirpate the species because some humans react negatively to urushiol. Birds eat PI seeds, deer and grasshoppers eat the leaves, and poison ivy has been part of the ecosystem far longer than we have.

And so has juniper/cedar, even though the conversation about how “native” it is continues. I recognize, begrudgingly, that just because a species is relatively new doesn’t mean it’s a harbinger of doom. Ecosystems are always in flux.

As I learned from Rob Denkhaus of the Fort Worth Nature Center, we all make value judgments. We humans have the power to make crucial decisions about ecosystems based on our values. We reap results based on how informed our decisions are.

So I’m trying to inform myself. And yes, the jury is still out. If our goal is encouraging native biodiversity, edging junipers out of prairies and forests seems advisable. But if we’re interested in carbon sequestering, that may be another matter…

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2 thoughts on “Cedar/Juniper: AAAAAAH! (choo)

  1. Eradication of native predators without compensatory hunting mortality has led to hyperherbivory by deer on native deciduous trees, opening the door for the opportunistic juniper. Once it is established, it’s a water hog that is tough to displace by more water thirsty species. In addition, fire disturbance has been reduced by people, promoting juniper advance, meanwhile dramatically increasing wildfire risk. Central Texas and other areas are experiencing ecosystem decay and juniper homogenization due to unwise fire management and an unmanageable deer problem. That Texas has few public lands that can be managed by Texas Parks and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife, and other agencies makes this a perfect storm for juniper expansion and high pollen levels.

    • That seems like a pretty succinct yet encompassing assessment of the problem, Steve. I like that you hint at potential solutions, like allowing TPWD and other organizations to maintain land and ecosystems. I wonder, in our proud land-owner state with a small percentage of land publicly owned, how much social change would be required before people would be willing to turn management over to others…

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