Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Christmas Tree of Christmas Past : The Red Cedar

As a child growing up in Cleveland County, we never once bought a Christmas tree.  We always went out in the countryside on my grandmother's land and found a perfectly shaped and just the right size red cedar. I was in Cleveland County recently, and I noticed how common red cedars are in the landscape.  I wondered if folks were still using this tree at Christmas. 
Red cedar tree.

Years later when I studied botany, I learned that the Eastern red cedar isn't a cedar at all, but rather a juniper, Juniperus virginiana to be exact.  Furthermore, I learned that this conifer occurs as male trees and female trees.  One tree will produce only male cones and the other tree will produce only female cones. Most conifers produce male and female cones on the same tree.
Fleshy female cones ("berries") of Juniperus virginiana
 The female juniper trees produce fleshy blue cones that resemble small blue "berries" (they are not, botanically speaking, berries but cones).  In fact at this time of the year the whole tree has a bluish cast because of these fleshy cones.  A side note: Juniper "berries" are the main ingredient added to gin for its flavor.

Gin and tonic.

The male juniper trees produce small yellowish, brown cones on the branches that will release pollen near the end of winter.
Pollen cones of male Juniperus virginiana
I no longer go out in the countryside to cut my own Christmas tree as I did as a child (we generally buy a Balsam fir at the Farmer's Market), but if I did now I would know if I were getting a male or a female Christmas tree.  So if you are out in the countryside where you perhaps cut a red cedar--remember it is a juniper--you can check to see the sex of your tree.  And the next time you have a gin and tonic, remember what produces the main flavor of the gin.

And that's your botany lesson for the day.

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