I hate cedar. Especially this time of year, when central Texas cedars—one of the most prolifically pollinating plants in North America—dramatically release copious airborne pollens in explosive puffs of orange-red smoke whenever cold winds blow from the north. Like gnarly little fishhooks, the pollens invade my nostrils and sinuses. Before long I’m sniffling and vacant, sick and tired. I hate cedar fever.
Since I moved to my nine-acre spread near the Hill Country town of Wimberley four years ago, cedar has become much more than a seasonal pain. In fact, not long after I bought my land, I discovered a different kind of cedar fever, a consuming obsession with the cursed tree. Cedar is an invader of grasslands and a horrendous water hog. It is low in nutritive value, unpalatable to cattle, and altogether unpleasant. It’s well-nigh impossible to get rid of. And it’s everywhere. Almost every one of the decent oaks on my property appeared to be dying a slow death, surrounded by a gaggle of young cedars choking them out, like a group of teenage street punks mugging a senior citizen. Forget mesquite, Johnson grass, sticker burs, and prickly pears. Cedar, as it exists in the Hill Country, deserves the reputation as the vilest plant thriving in Texas.
Well, okay, it does have some positive characteristics. Cedar stays green year-round. Cedar bushes provide natural privacy fencing, blocking out the views of my neighbors’ homes (and vice versa), and they prevent erosion on steep slopes. Old-growth cedar provides cover for all sorts of wildlife and the habitat for a couple of rare, endangered Neotropical migrant songbirds that spend their summers in Central Texas—the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. This last fact, in some people’s minds, is the worst thing of all about cedar, and it has been the cause of a lot of trouble and misinformation in the war on cedar.
I’m a city boy. When I bought my nine acres, I was determined to be a responsible steward, to do the right thing, to disturb the land as little as possible. But cedar challenged my values. I wanted it out of there, by any means necessary. The debate to remove or not to remove became the basis for domestic squabbles between my wife and me, turning into great philosophical entreaties that grew even more spirited after my neighbor, whose cleared grassland resembles a thick, lush savannah, asked me what I was going to do with all those gnarly cedar bushes, especially those that crowded over our fence line.
Cedar, I was learning, is a vegetative Vietnam—it’s hard enough figuring out the identity of the enemy. Is it the government, which in the name of protecting a couple of birds seemed to be telling me what I could and could not do with my land? Is it the warbler and the vireo? Is it overgrazing and lousy land management? Or is it cedar itself?
I TRACKED DOWN FRED SMEINS, a prominent teacher and researcher in the department of rangeland ecology and management at Texas A&M; Mr. Cedar to you and me. The easygoing Smeins calmed me down in short measure and reassured me in a learned, professorial manner.
First of all, he patiently explained to me, not all cedar is cedar. The cedar I was obsessing on is not a true cedar, but actually Ashe juniper, one of seventeen species of the genus Juniperus found mainly in the western United States. It goes by several scientific names— Juniperus ashei, Juniperus sabinoides, or Juniperus mexicana —and is commonly referred to as mountain cedar, post cedar, blueberry cedar, Texas cedar, and Mexican cedar, as well as damn cedar, in addition to just plain cedar. Officially described as a dioecious shrub, it grows in calcareous, shallow rock soils (read: limestone) and flourishes on the Edwards Plateau, the geographic region popularly known as the Hill Country.
Second, Smeins told me, there’s a world of difference between old-growth cedar, which is anywhere from twenty to two hundred years old, and second-growth cedar, which is younger and scrubbier and usually thrives in areas where old-growth cedar has been removed. Though size is one standard of measure—the ancient cedars that were here before we Texans showed up were downright stately—it’s really a matter of heart: The older the tree, the more dense, dark heartwood is in the trunk. Heartwood can be harvested for many things, including fence posts—the basis for the cedar-chopping industry before cheaper metal posts came along in the fifties. Sapwood, the white ring around the heartwood, can make up almost all of a second-growth cedar trunk and is too soft for fence posts or furniture.
Finally, Smeins said, as evil as I might think cedar is, it isn’t really the all-purpose Beelzebub of God’s greenhouse. Yes, he acknowledged, cedar is a terrible curse on the Hill Country, and its spread into grasslands is troubling. “Our research station at Sonora shows if you remove woody plants of any kind, but especially cedar, you’re going to have more water reach the soil,” he said, noting that a fifteen-foot cedar uses 35 gallons of water a day, nearly twice that of a similar-sized oak. But, he added, “Like most things, cedar isn’t all bad, and it isn’t all good. There is no right or wrong. How you look at it depends on your interest. The Edwards Plateau is a microcosm and a convergence of every land-use issue going. If you’re a cattle rancher, you don’t want cedar because it competes with your grass.” A biologist, a birder, or the owner of five thousand acres who doesn’t run cattle might see it in a completely different light.
Smeins also dispelled the belief that cedar is an interloper. “Cedar forests already flourished in canyons and ravines on the eastern edge of the Hill Country and around Utopia and Vanderpool, according to historical accounts of explorers, though it was not common to other parts of the Edwards Plateau.”
He set me straight on a few other things too.