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Central Texans, Beware of Cedar Fever This Year

This cedar season looks brutal. Prepare to sniffle.

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Male cedar trees release pollen during the colder months of the year.
Photograph by Gyro Photography/amanaimagesRF

Cedar fever: It’s the scourge of Central Texas, a tiny beast that hides out in your nostrils and makes the mild winter weather threaten to devour your sense of peace on earth and good will toward your fellow man. You sneeze, your eyes itch, and your throat closes up as you sniffle through all of January and maybe February too. People who moved to Austin and the surrounding areas from elsewhere, lured to the Lone Star State by plentiful barbecue, rivers of queso, and a reasonably low cost-of-living, may find the sudden onset of a vicious cedar allergy to be nature’s cruel trick on Texas transplants.

It doesn’t always strike everyone, of course, but this winter’s edition of cedar season looks to be a brutal one. That’s the takeaway from weather experts who note that the warm, wet fall that struck Central Texas in 2017 has primed trees to produce a savage amount of pollen. As KXAN reports:

Cedar season is typically the third week in December through the end of February, but this year, Dr. [Robert] Cook [of Central Texas Allergy & Asthma] says the season could be mid-December all the way through the first week of March. Male cedar trees — technically ashe junipers — produce pollen on the ends of their branches that turns brown and cone-like when they’re mature. One good cold snap will open the cones and let the yellow pollen be dispersed by the wind. On windy days, clouds of cedar pollen are a common sight in this area.

During the height of cedar season, it’s normal to see 5,000-10,000 cedar grains per cubic meter of air. Dr. Cook believes numbers this year will be on the high side, possibly in the low 10,000s. It is possible for numbers to go as high as 60,000, but that would be very rare.

In other words, according to Cook, the pollen count this year could be six to twelve times worse than an average year, and last weeks longer than usual. And the increased count won’t just affect those with known cedar allergies. The amount of pollen in the air in recent years means that everybody’s exposure to it is up—even if they don’t live in Central Texas. “Having such a bad cedar season, then there might be more people becoming allergic to cedar, because they’ll have had higher exposure to it,” Douglas Barstow. a doctor with Allergy & Asthma Associates, told KXAN.

But where did all of this sneeze-inducing Texas cedar come from? You can thank your barbecue-loving grandparents.

According to NPR, Central Texas’s cedar explosions come from livestock overgrazing grass around the turn of the nineteenth century, which gave the cedar trees (also known as juniper) the opportunity to thrive without competition.

When Europeans moved into the area, grass steadily declined in exchange for juniper scrubland. Grassland Ecologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Dr. Oscar Van Auken, sums up the process in a 2008 study: “The prime cause of the current and recent encroachment [of woody shrubs like juniper] appears to be high and constant levels of grass herbivory by domestic animals.” That’s fancy science talk to say that cattle, sheep — and now goats — in the Hill Country have steadily eaten up all the grass, eliminating juniper’s competition in the area.

Resolving the issue has been a longstanding challenge for Central Texans. In 1997, Joe Nick Patoski wrote in Texas Monthly about the personal struggle he had with cedar on his land—and the resulting exploration of what can be done about it led him to ultimately yield the battle and accept that he’d have to live in red-eyed harmony with his sniffle-inducing foe. In a year like this one, surrender to the elemental forces of cedar may be the only solution.

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  • Bethany Brandon

    “It’s normal to see 5,000-10,000 cedar grains per cubic meter of air. Dr. Cook believes numbers this year will be on the high side, possibly in the low 10,000s. … the pollen count this year could be six to twelve times worse than an average year…” I’m no math major, but how is a count in the low 10,000s “six to twelve times worse” than a “normal” count of 5-10,000?

    • José

      If “low 10,000s” means single digit multiples of ten thousand then that could translate to something like 30,000, which is in fact 6 x 5,000.
      The English language can be so ambiguous.

      • Bethany Brandon

        Thank you!! I was feeling so inadequate.

        • José

          You’re very welcome. That’s the only way that I can reconcile the words. Then again it’s also quite possible that someone simply made an error.
          My job involves writing technical specifications and I am acutely aware of problems in language, particularly with ambiguities and alternate meanings. A misunderstood statement can result in very expensive errors.

  • Cedar fever can be bad, but it is a myth that the Juniper was not here before the Europeans. Look at the old buildings, look at Native American artifacts, look at archeological evidence. Reality disagrees with the propaganda that says Juniper is not a native.

    If you want to attack a invader, golf course grass is the imported alien invasive destroyer of habitat. The Juniper was here long before we were. The fact that Juniper can make you miserable does not make it an alien.

    Personally, eating a few of the ripe blue berries each year seems to keep my allergies down and I am getting better every year. A nice ripe Texas Juniper berry has a delightful hint of sweet followed by a touch of blandness and then a very strong and bitter resinous taste. Almost like turpentine smells. I don’t mind a half dozen berries a year in exchange for being able to breath through my nose in winter.

    • Kozmo

      I’m going to drink more Greek retsina wine this year and see if that helps!

  • SpiritofPearl

    I learned about cedar fever before I moved here. My allergist in Indiana tested me for it and found I was moderately allergic to cedar. He added cedar pollen to my desensitization shots. I have now have no problems with allergies whatsoever.

  • Porkeating Crusader

    Red Cedar out here in East Texas doesn’t bother me. When I lived near Kerrville, I was sick all the time. It’s the Juniper that grows and spreads like weeds that is trouble to us allergy sufferers.

    • Kozmo

      That’s cause red cedar isn’t mountain juniper (which is what central Texas “cedar” really is).

      • Porkeating Crusader

        You’re thinking of Rocky Mountain Juniper. There are 25 species of Juniper. “Mountain Juniper” grows taller, and is more prevalent in mountainous regions. Hence the name “mountain cedar”. Central Texas has shorter, scrubby juniper bush-like trees.

      • Porkeating Crusader

        You’re thinking of Rocky Mountain Juniper. Mountain Juniper, or Mountain Cedar pollen blow into Texas from the west (New Mexico).There are 25 species of Juniper. “Mountain Juniper” grows taller, and is more prevalent in mountainous regions. Hence the name “mountain cedar”. Central Texas has shorter, scrubby juniper bush-like trees.
        Red Cedar can grow to 70 ft, and does not cover hillsides like it’s scrubby relatives in the central areas of Texas.

  • Kozmo

    I wish this sort of news would be as widely disseminated as our glamor events like SXSW and ACL Music festival and the stupid auto racing and all the rest of it. Some of those 150 people moving to Austin every day might possibly think twice if they knew what they were in for.

    “Reasonably low cost of living”???? is this referring to the same Austin I live in?? Maybe the writer hasn’t opened his latest property tax bill yet.