Grazing Oklahoma: Eastern Red Cedar

(Photo courtesy of the Noble Research Institute)

By Mike Proctor, Noble Research Institute research associate /

Characteristics: Eastern red cedar is a small to medium-sized evergreen tree with small, scale-like needles.
It grows differently depending upon the habitat. When growing in a dense, closed canopy forest, it will grow straight and tall with fewer lower branches. In the open, it tends to have a “tear-drop” growth form until it reaches about 30 feet in height; then it begins to grow out rather than up. These open-grown trees will have branches that reach the ground.

Eastern red cedar has male and female individuals. The fruits are pale blue, making the female trees appear bluish. Male trees, with staminate cones, have a yellowish cast. Leaves are about 1/16 of an inch long, although young leaves tend to be longer and more pointed. Eastern red cedar begins producing fruit at around 10 years of age.

(Photo courtesy of the Noble Research Institute)

Area of Importance: Eastern red cedar was historically restricted to river and creek bottoms, bluffs and ravines that were sheltered from fire. Now they can be found in a variety of habitats in every Oklahoma county.
Four other native junipers occur in Oklahoma: Pinchot’s juniper in the southwest, ashe juniper in the Arbuckles and Ozark Plateau, and one-seed juniper and Rocky Mountain juniper in the western Panhandle.

Attributes: The wood of eastern red cedar is used for fence posts and furniture as well as oils for many different products. Investigations were conducted into large-scale commercial harvesting of eastern red cedar, but none have proven economically viable.

Historically, fire prevented eastern red cedar from invading grasslands and forests in Oklahoma because of its thin bark and inability to re-sprout after fire. Today, it has become incredibly invasive. Estimates of negative economic impacts to the state approach $500 million dollars per year. These impacts include wildfire damage, loss of grazing resources, water quality issues and even air quality concerns as it, along with ashe juniper, is a major, early March allergen source in Oklahoma.

Overgrazing, abandoned fields and the absence of fire on the landscape have provided ideal conditions for the colonization of eastern red cedar. Methods of control are prescribed burning, chemical and mechanical or combinations thereof.

On your next trip along Interstate 35 or Interstate 40, while you are admiring the lovely green tones of eastern red cedar against a backdrop of dull tans and browns, consider the fact that, although it is native to Oklahoma, you should really have to hunt pretty hard to find one. I can recall as a child looking for one suitable to be a Christmas tree and not finding one large enough. Today, that wouldn’t be a problem. While the increase of eastern red cedar has been dramatic in the last 30 years, it has been just gradual enough that few Oklahomans have noticed.