Conservation Corner: Missouri’s (almost) Official Christmas Tree

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Missouri’s official state tree is the flowering dogwood. But if the Show-Me State had an official Christmas tree, it might be the eastern red cedar. It’s one of the few evergreen trees native to Missouri.

The eastern red cedar is a small to medium-sized conifer that sports a dense body having a pyramid-like shape. They tend to grow in a variety of places, particularly glades and bluffs. But they are also found in open, rocky woods, pastures, old fields, and along roadsides and fencerows. Some gnarly cedars clinging to Ozark bluffs have been around for over 1,000 years. These trees are commonly found all around Missouri.

The eastern red cedar is actually part of the juniper family and is known for its especially aromatic scent. It emits a spicy and distinctive fragrance that would be the envy of any Christmas candle collector.

Cedars are aggressive colonizers, which means they are fast-growing and will move in quickly to take over open areas. They can be key to restoring deforested places. But land managers who want to preserve glades and grasslands must actively work to prevent them from encroaching by cutting them and using prescribed burning.

In the true holiday spirit, eastern red cedars do give us many gifts. They provide a welcome dash of green to a monochrome winter landscape. Birds and other critters eat their bluish berries. In fact, cedar waxwings are named because they love to feast on them. Cedar seeds that have traveled through the digestive tract of waxwings and other birds even germinate more than those that haven’t.

Cedar trees provide another essential need for birds . . . cover. Their thick crowns are used as nesting and roosting shelter by a variety of avian residents.

While eastern red cedars are more like “outdoor” Christmas trees, they have been known to take their place as the center of yuletide celebrations in people’s living rooms. Some old-time Ozarkers advise caution, though. Folklore says that bringing cedar boughs into a home causes bad luck, except during Christmas. And even then, the old-timers warn that they had to be removed before 12 a.m. on January 6, the day known in Christianity as Epiphany.

But the reality is, before spruces and pines from Christmas tree farms became popular, this humble native conifer was a traditional favorite in many homes.

Many also cherish the wood from red cedars because of the wonderful, aromatic chests and closets they can create. Oil from their resin is used for ointments, soaps, and to flavor gin. That’s quite a generous haul of gifts from Missouri’s almost Official Christmas tree!

Take a winter walk around your neighborhood, local park, or nearest conservation area after a heavy snow and look for some eastern red cedars. Enjoy their winter gifts. You’re certain to admire how beautiful they are when their branches are adorned with new-fallen snow.

Visit www.mdc.mo.gov