Saturday, October 19, 2013

Red cedar, blue berries (cones)

I slipped through the gap in the fence at the southwest corner of the cemetery the other day to investigate fall colors in the three-ponds Chariton River Greenbelt area that wraps itself around the west base of cemetery hill. More people should do this --- it's a pretty and peaceful place and the fall foliage that will be reflected in the water of the ponds in a few days is a sight to behold. There isn't a trail, however, so be warned.

But what caught my eye was blue rather than red or yellow --- red cedar branches decorated with blue berries among the brighter foliage. The berries actually are cones --- red cedar is the only conifer native to this part of the state --- now ripe in their third year of development. Cedars bloom one year, green berries (or cones) mature the next and ripen blue during the third. And for the record, red cedars are members of the juniper family --- actually not cedars at all.

Birds love the berries, which is one reason why there are so many cedars scattered along roadsides and taking over poorly maintained pastures and unmanaged open hillsides. Keep in mind that prairie fires once kept red cedars in their place, but there are few of those burning these days.

Eastern red cedars also are believed to be Iowa's oldest trees. According to the ISU Forestry Department, specimens as old as 450 years have been located in the state. My favorite among these giants --- not that old --- is at Rush Cemetery down south of Cambria in Wayne County.

Since we were both poor and provident when I was a kid, my dad usually went out and chopped down a cedar for use as a Christmas tree come that season and although they're scraggly and prickly, I didn't notice. 

My favorite creative use of our native cedars is represented in these small "Shaker" boxes, crafted several years ago by a guy down around Garden Grove. These sit atop the downstairs bathroom cabinet and I didn't put much effort into photography here. Although climbing up onto the stool and leaning backwards to get them all into the frame was an interesting early morning adventure.

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