Garden Notes: The red cedar

The Christmas tree of generations past.

Field cedars off Music Street, West Tisbury. —Susan Safford

Daylight has increased greatly in the pm, while much less in the am. In fact, according to the advice- and fact-filled 2018 UMass Extension calendar, sunrise is only four minutes earlier than it was at New Year’s, while sunset is 16 minutes later.

This lack of symmetry is always disconcerting, but I would need an astronomer to explain it. Meanwhile, some math-inclined students could graph the sunrise/sunset times and see what results they find.

I have heard early-morning birdsong recently! Are they staking out territories already? There seem to be few winter moths in flight after the flash-freeze during Christmas/New Year’s week, although they probably have a mechanism for dealing with cold temperatures. (Many Islanders are hoping the cold has impeded the supply of ticks too.)

Witch hazels were well on their way to flowering at this time last year, but no signs today. Several of mine have made suckers from below the graft union that eluded my notice earlier; these really must come off if the desirable form scion is not to be overwhelmed, a task perfectly suited to a chilly January day.

I am thrilled to have my first camellia flower, a pink peony-form bloom on the classic ‘Debutante.’ This cultivar, introduced in the early 1900s, is not bloom-hardy in this climate, but it makes a good subject for a cool growing space like my greenhouse. Camellia Forest Nursery ( is the source for countless cultivars and species, while Logee’s Greenhouses ( was the source of my ‘Debutante.’

Speaking of houseplants, with better light we can resume feeding and watering them. During the dark period of least daylight, most houseplants are all but dormant; feeding and watering stresses plants not in active growth, and promotes root problems.

Holiday cyclamen prefer to be watered from the bottom: Do not let water stand in the saucer. Check foliage undersides and stems for minute cyclamen scale, which seems to exist almost endemically on these otherwise wonderful plants. If you spot a spherical seed capsule on the cyclamen, let it bend over onto the potting mix. You may get babies.

Aged cedars’ structure is often interesting. — Susan Safford


James Wong shares information about shallots that makes me conclude that food lovers have been seriously misled about one of their favorite gourmet ingredients! In his column of Dec. 3,, Wong states that the shallots we buy from our seed suppliers and produce section alike are actually a bastard “shallot,” in reality just a smaller, elongated, bunch-forming onion, Allium cepa var. aggregatum. To experience the special flavor, grow or buy the true shallot; search for Allium oschaninii ‘Eschalote Grise,’ or ‘Griselle.’


Trees: Red cedar

“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.”  –Wendell Berry

It supports life in deepest winter, and is unaccountably disparaged. One of the most commonly seen Vineyard tree species where old fields are returning to woodland is red cedar, Juniperus virginiana. I choose to write about this mundane evergreen because I love it, and it is very often disparaged.

Maybe it is a stigma that arises from its having been the folk Christmas tree of several generations back, but which was then shoved aside as Island families became affluent enough to aspire to a blue spruce or fir from off-Island. I still remember its unmistakable scent filling our old home with the “smell of Christmas.”

Or is it that seedling cedars are frontline invaders where open land is reverting and progressing to woodland, and are therefore seen as an unwelcome symptom of the abandonment of farms and farmland?

And then there is the cedar rust problem, admittedly an unsolvable nuisance for the most part, where red cedars are the alternate host to a fungal disease called cedar-apple rust, and where proximity complicates the growing of apples.

In earlier days, the competing interests of orchardists were pitted against those of pencil manufacturers, who used board feet of red cedar by the millions in pencil manufacture. The fragrant wood is workable, light, and strong in many uses.

I choose to admire and bestow affection upon this tree for its positive attributes, chiefly that it is a hardy survivor in locations where it can thrive, and that in so doing it becomes an object of enduring beauty.

Red cedar needs sunlight and open locations to thrive, as do most conifers. When it begins to invade roadsides, fence lines, and farmland, it is functioning as the first line in what is called succession, the change from open land to woods. As a nurse tree, unpalatable to livestock, it shelters the seedlings of further waves of the succession process, but will eventually succumb itself to their shade unless the tree becomes valued as a part of the landscape.

However, when red cedar is incorporated into landscapes and permitted to achieve age and stature, its interesting form and structure become apparent. These are trees that support themselves on the rocky beach headlands of Vineyard Sound, regularly doused with salt spray. They thrive equally uncomplainingly on the dry, sandy soil of the outwash plain. The candle-flame form of cedar gives the Vineyard landscape something comparable to the Mediterranean cypress in Tuscany.

The red cedar supports life in deepest midwinter. Observers of individual trees may have noticed that some are so heavily laden with berries that they become practically blue in autumn. These are female trees (red cedars, like hollies, are dioecious) and the “berries,” actually cones, make these trees a safe haven for birds and a support for other forms of wildlife. (Male trees have small, brownish, pollen-emitting cones.)