The season changes here in the Texas hill country are more subtle than in some areas of the US. Our winters are usually marked by different things than snow and ice. One of those mid-winter happenings is cedar allergy season, known as Cedar Fever to the locals. Here in the Texas hill country, cedar trees are as ubiquitous as barbecue & tacos. Almost everywhere you look you’ll find one of these trees. Sometimes it can feel like the picture to the left… that the whole world in Austin is made of cedar trees!
When the cedar trees pollinate in December through February, they tend to wreak allergy hell on many a person. These trees get a bad rap for a few reasons: many people are allergic to their pollen and for different reasons, many landowners find them problematic (more on that later). However, these trees are important to our hill country eco-system. So while you’re sneezing, wiping your itchy eyes and wanting to cut down all the cedar in sight, let’s talk a little bit about what makes these trees so amazing & important. We’ll also take a look at why they can be considered problematic.
A little backstory –
First let’s call them by their proper name. What we know as “cedar” here is actually not a a cedar tree at all, but is coniferous and is a member of the Juniper family. They are known as Ashe Juniper trees, in recognition of US Forest Service Forester William Ashe. He was the first to collect a sample of this tree in 1924 in Arkansas. The scientific name is Juniperus ashei. Ashe Junipers are evergreen, typically multi-trunked and rarely grow over 30 ft tall.
They have been here for a very long time and are native trees. In fact fossilized Ashe Juniper pollen found in Friesenhahn Cave, out near San Antonio, dates back 14 to 20 thousand years ago. Early visitors recorded densely covered “cedar brakes” in the Balcones Canyonland area as well.
From a wildlife perspective —
Ashe Juniper has a lot of value for wildlife. Fox, ring tails, raccoons, coyotes, white-tailed deer and more than 19 species of birds forage for the berries. The shaggy bark of the mature Ashe Juniper trees is used by the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler, who only breeds in the Texas Hill Country and then returns to South America in the fall. Since it is ever-green, Ashe Juniper is used for cover in the winter and nesting for animals and birds in the spring. This tree is also the larval host for the Juniper Hairstreak butterfly as well.
From a Historical and Practical Perspective…
This tree played an important role in the history of the Hill Country area. Originally, Native Americans relied on the wood of the trees. Later, the Cedar Choppers relied on these trees for their living by chopping and selling cedar poles. The heartwood of Ashe Juniper is durable and resistant to rot, as a result they were used as fence posts, telegraph poles and railroad ties.
Today Ashe Juniper oil is used in the making of different fragrances and the wood is still used for fence posts.
Cedar As Far As You Can See – photo credit H. Valey
Just because Ashe Junipers are native, doesn’t mean that they can’t be aggressive. Ashe Juniper will take over on over-grazed/disturbed land. Lack of fire and competition of herbaceous plants allows the Ashe Juniper saplings to get out of check and take over. Once the Ashe Juniper shades out the ground, then it really makes it hard for forbs and grasses to flourish, which are the plants that livestock prefer. It also out competes more preferable tree species such as the Live Oak. There is also some proof that dense Ashe Juniper growth will deter adequate water regeneration back to the aquifers. This is why land owners who are trying maintain grasslands for livestock find these trees problematic.
However, on the flip side, Ashe Juniper trees are evergreen, drought-tolerant and provide a great privacy screen and/or windbreak. They can and do grow on limestone, holding together the rock and soil that would otherwise erode during our flash floods. They can act as a nursery tree for some of smaller important under story trees such as Madrone & Rusty blackhaw viburnam. Also of note, is that the leaf litter from the Ashe Juniper helps to create soil on top of the limestone, which anyone who has tried to dig a hole here in the Hill Country knows we need more of.
And Yes… there are the allergies…
Ashe Juniper trees are dioecious, meaning that there are male plants & female plants. Female plants produce small blue juniper berries, the males produce the pollen. Ashe Juniper don’t start producing berries or pollen until they are around 10 to 20 years old. What triggers allergic reactions in so many people is the pollen that is released by the male trees. The pollen is released into the air in huge clouds by the male trees and is carried by the wind many miles, so chopping down all the cedar in your yard will not help. Best to see your doctor about remedies that will work for you during Cedar Fever season. It’s all part of living in the hill country, there are a plenty of good things but yeah, admittedly, Cedar fever isn’t so great. However, don’t blame the trees, they are just doing what they are supposed to do and what they have done for eons… propagate.
The Takeaway —
Many landowners struggle with what to do with cedar on their property. Like with almost everything in life, It depends on what you are trying to achieve. Cutting down all the Ashe Juniper is not beneficial for wildlife, but letting it take over isn’t great if you are a rancher and need to keep your grassland for livestock. When attending a land stewardship workshop at Bamberger Ranch, known for their outstanding land stewardship in Texas, they shared that they cut down most of the Ashe Juniper saplings, and 2nd growth trees, but groom and leave all mature Ashe Juniper Trees, cutting them into an appealing lollypop shape. This allows more sun to hit the ground and encourages the growth of more native forbs and grasses, but also allows wildlife to benefit from the trees in the ways they need to.
If you sit and pick a mature Ashe Juniper to stare at for a few minutes, you can’t help but feel a profound sense of time as you look at its worn bark and sturdy stature. These trees are true native Texans, tough, determined and an essential part of its historical and future identity.
- Biology & Ecology of Ashe Juniper – F. E. Smeins and S. D.
- Juniperus ashei – Wikipedia
- Know your Natives: Ashe Juniper – Sara Galvan
- Dispelling Myths of Ashe Juniper – Jim & Lynne Weber
- Juniper Ecology – Alan McGinty
- White Juniper Fungus Biology – Bill Dodd
- Juniper Biology & Management in Texas – Texas Agriculture Extension Service
- Ashe Juniper Is Really More Good Than Bad – Jan McAuliffe and Mary Dunn, NPSOT Beorne Chapter
- The War on Cedar – Joe Nick Patoski – Texas Monthly