The many qualities of Missouri cedar trees

Francis Skalicky
Missouri Department of Conservation
A look at the many qualities of Missouri cedar trees.

For many Ozarkers, sneezing and watering eyes are reasons to cast hateful looks at cedar trees at this time of year.

Along with greening plants and singing birds, other sure signs that we’re on the cusp of spring are runny noses, itchy eyes and all the allergy-related misery associated with many people’s annual battle with cedar pollen. Cedar trees are early pollinators and, in terms of spores released, are one of North America’s most voluminous pollen-producing plants. As you’re heading to the medicine cabinet or the pharmacy to get nasal relief, here’s what’s going on around you.

The culprit of your misery is the Eastern redcedar tree, one of Missouri’s more common trees. As can be discerned from its taxonomic name, Juniperus virginiana, redcedar trees aren’t true cedar trees – they’re juniper trees.

This is the time of year cedar trees are tending to the business of producing the next generation. Cedar pollen, like pollen of other plants, is the tree’s male fertilizing agent. Cedar trees have male and female plants and it’s the male that releases pollen from tiny (3 mm-4 mm in diameter) cones at the tips of their scale-like leaves. (Yes, although they don’t look like leaves found on other trees, cedar needles are leaves.) Female cedar trees have “conelets” that receive the wind-blown pollen spores. The end product is the blue seed-carrying berries the female cedars produce later in the year. (Technically, they’re not berries, they’re cones. However, since everyone calls them berries, that’s what they’ll be referred to here, too.)

Since neither the male or female cedar tree can move, the trick to successful cedar reproduction is to release the pollen in bulk. The more pollen you send out, the better the chances of some of it finding female trees. In some instances, this pollen release is so heavy it appears smoke is coming from a tree. Unfortunately, we humans are caught in the middle of this cedar romancing and the end result for many of us is allergic suffering.

Before we rev up the chainsaw and head for the nearest grove of cedars, it should be noted these trees do have some redeeming qualities. (It should also be pointed out that wind-blown cedar pollen can travel great distances so eliminating your local cedar trees won’t eliminate your cedar-pollen problems.) Cedar trees can provide valuable windbreaks for livestock, good habitat for wildlife and, at Christmas, they’re popular with many people who enjoy having real trees to hang decorations on in their home. Cedar wood is used to make chests, interior paneling, posts, woodenware and a variety of novelty items. Refined versions of the tree’s resin are ingredients in ointments, shoe polish and soap.

While the tree’s ability to invade and taking over a landscape causes frequent problems for landowners, this aggressiveness and adaptability has a positive side, too. A cedar’s ability to grow in rocky areas, on hillsides and other places where other trees and grasses have problems taking root makes it one of Nature’s “bandages.” It performs soil-holding duties in locations where other plants can’t.

Though it won’t provide relief from your allergies, you can find more information about cedars and other trees at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.