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Iowa-native red cedar trees are a hardy option

Nature's Notes: 400-year-old specimens can be found in Iowa

Eastern red cedar trees are native to Iowa and are hardy trees that offer a nice wind break.  (Courtesy photo: Marion Patterson)
Eastern red cedar trees are native to Iowa and are hardy trees that offer a nice wind break. (Courtesy photo: Marion Patterson)
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With more and more shade trees succumbing to pest diseases, homeowners may be intrigued with a simple solution. If you want a tree that thrives in terrible soil and can live for centuries here is an option.

This tree is an Iowa native that has few pests or diseases, needs little maintenance and provides shelter for many bird species. In the right place, an eastern red cedar is the perfect tree.

Red cedar is actually a juniper that ranges from the Great Plains east to the Atlantic Ocean and from the northern United States down to the Gulf of Mexico.

It is a pioneer plant that quickly moves into cleared areas. A 940-year-old specimen lives in Virginia. Shrubby ones growing on the rocks at Palisades Kepler State Park are reported to be at least 400 years old. They may be the oldest trees in Iowa.

Red cedar wood is red to pinkish and has a pleasant odor that supposedly repels moths. It’s favored for making cedar chests. The wood resists rotting, and a fence post made of it can last for decades.

In Iowa most red cedars are shrubs that quickly move into pastures and unburned prairies. It’s rarely planted as a shade tree but is commonly used for windbreaks. Some very large ones grow in Cedar Rapids yards.

Often a baby Cedar will sprout on the edge of a lawn. They are easy to transplant to a desirable location. Seedlings also can be purchased. In the right spot they grow quickly and even deer shun eating them.

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Although cedars are amazingly durable there are two things they can’t tolerate — shade and fire. They need full sun to thrive and a fire moving through a grove of young ones quickly kills them.

l Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids.

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