With Winter Comes Cedar Fever

 

Cedar World - photo credit H. Valey

Cedar World – photo credit H. Valey

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.

The Good

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Golden-Cheeked Warbler perched in Ashe Juniper – photo credit H. Valey

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.

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Juniper Hairstreak – photo credit H. Valey

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. ValeyCedar As Far As You Can See – photo credit H. Valey

The Problematic

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.

Ashe Juniper on Hwy 360 - photo credit H. Valey

Cedar Trees Holding the Limestone Cliff Together on HWY 360 – photo credit H. Valey

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.

sources:

  1. Biology & Ecology of Ashe Juniper – F. E. Smeins and S. D.
  2. Juniperus ashei – Wikipedia
  3. Know your Natives: Ashe Juniper – Sara Galvan
  4. Dispelling Myths of Ashe Juniper – Jim & Lynne Weber
  5. Juniper Ecology – Alan McGinty
  6.  White Juniper Fungus Biology – Bill Dodd
  7. Juniper Biology & Management in Texas – Texas Agriculture Extension Service
  8. Ashe Juniper Is Really More Good Than Bad – Jan McAuliffe and Mary Dunn, NPSOT Beorne Chapter
  9. The War on Cedar – Joe Nick Patoski – Texas Monthly

Adding Datura To My Butterfly Garden

Datura Bloom- photo by H. Valey

So somewhat cautiously I bought a Datura plant (Datura wrightii) and put it in the Butterfly Garden section of my backyard.  Cautiously, mainly because it is very toxic, and also it is considered a weed to some folks.  To me, the term “weed” usually means it has a spreading habit.  Having a small yard, I, unfortunately, don’t have a lot of room for plants with wanderlust.  However I was won over at the thought of hosting Sphinx Moth (AKA Hawk Moth for some) caterpillars and the big showy night blooms of the plant.  Having a moth pollinator plant seemed like a logical addition to the butterfly garden.  Also, I have a friend who is crazy about these plants, she keeps buying more of them for her yard.  So heaped with a good dose of peer pressure, I thought, “sure, I’ll give it a go”.

Datura Flower – photo by H. Valey

Datura, also known as Jimson Weed.  (There is a great story about this I’ll tell later) has greenish grey foliage and will form a mounding shape.  If its in an area where it doesn’t die back in the winter, it can get up to 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide.  So if you live somewhere with warm winters make sure you give it room.  The flowers are trumpet shaped and open up in a bloom about the size of an adult’s hand.  They bloom overnight and in the morning, but by afternoon the bloom is gone.  What grows after the bloom is a thorny seed pod, sometimes called a “devil’s apple” or “thorn apple”.  I let these stay on for awhile, because they look pretty cool, but ultimately I remove them because I don’t want Datura seeds all over my small garden!

Devils Apple – Datura seed pod

The nickname for Datura is Jimson Weed, which is a truncation of the original nickname “James Town Weed”. The story goes, that in 1676 some British soldiers  who had been sent to James Town to stop Bacon’s Rebellion, had harvested some young Datura leaves and made a salad of it for one of their meals.  They spent the next 11 days in delerium, effected by the toxicity of the plant.  Below is a description of their behaviour from a book written by Robert Beverly Jr. about the History of Virgina.

“The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll. “

Robert Beverley, Jr.The History and Present State of Virginia, Book II: Of the Natural Product and Conveniencies in Its Unimprov’d State, Before the English Went Thither, 1705

Abstract Close Up Datura Petal – photo by H. Valey

Here in zone 8, this plant is a perrenial.   The native species for the Texas Hill Country region is Datura Wrightii.  Like most weeds, its not to particular about soil. It does take more water than most native Texas Hill Country plants.  It would do best in a boggy area or a place that gets regular water.

Here’s some more information on Datura:

Datura profile in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlflower Database

Growing and caring for Datura

An account of using Datura as a drug

About Jimson Weed – Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension 

Gardening For Wildlife

28225581807_431293b5c4_oI’ve been spending a good portion of my time this spring working on my wildlife garden in my backyard.  We started out 3 years ago with just a backyard full of St. Augustine grass, now I have over 25 types of native plants in the backyard and about half the grass.  Do I have more wildlife? Yes and no… When I wasn’t out fiddling in the yard all the time I did notice that we had more lizards. When I wasn’t taking such good care of the compost bin, we had raccoon visitors nightly.  Now, not as many lizards, although that might change now that there are more shrubs growing in the yard and rock piles that I won’t be mucking about with anymore.  The compost bin has been switched out from an open frame style to a closed drum, so no more raccoon salad bar, but perhaps that’s ok. I didn’t mind the raccoons, but I never got any compost because they ate all the green bits!

42843548601_7c85524141_oI have noticed more birds, as I have more native bugs in the yard with the native plants.  I’ve noticed more wrens gleaning bugs off of our dwarf Yaupon bushes, which  is quite entertaining to watch.  Plants with berries, such as the Beauty Berry bush and Pigeon Berry bring in Mocking Birds and Doves, not that I needed more Doves, but still 🙂 We also had a Painted Bunting in the yard this year, and a Red-Breasted Grossbeak last year which is a little unusual in a suburban neighborhood.

We have more hummingbird visitors now that  I have more Salvias & Batface Cuphea planted. My milkweed is doing really well this year so I’m hoping to get some more Monarch visitors at some point as well. We definitely have more spiders… jumping spiders and wolf spiders. They are quite fun to watch.  We have more ants too, which I’m not that excited about though.

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I’ve had a lot of fun picking out the plants and planning the garden, although its taking more iteration than I ever imagined.  I really enjoy just sitting and watching the animals in the yard.  I’ll be adding a butterfly garden addition soon.  We just pulled out more grass in a sunny spot, so this fall I’ll plant some pollinator annuals. I also have some plans for a new water feature for next year to replace the utilitarian bird bath.

We don’t have a big yard.  I envy the folks with an acre or more to work with, but I’ll do the best with what I have. Now that it’s summer and over 100 degrees everyday, I’ll just wait until the fall to do some more work in the yard.  Its worth it to me to have a place to escape to, to forget all of the craziness in the world.

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Plant Resources for Texas Wildlife Gardeners:

What kind of plants and critters do you have in your backyard?

“Bye Bye Ligustrum” at Blair Woods

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The Pond at Blair Woods

Blair Woods is this cool little wooded preserve in Austin proper. It’s about 10 acres and was left to the Travis Audubon Society in the 80s by Dr. Frank Blair, who was a UT professor and a zoologist. It has a pond and a trail that winds through different habitat types including a woodland and savanah.  The pond is pretty interesting in that it was made by damming up a creek with homework papers that Dr. Blair had collected from his students.  He reportedly called it the “Dam of Words”. Continue reading

First Flowers of Spring

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purple Windflower – photo by Heather Valey © 2018

This year being no exception, the Windflower is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, usually late february.  You’ll find it blooming in purple, white, blue and violet.  The blooms are about 1 and a half inches in diameter.  They aren’t big flowers at all.  Probably the main thing that keeps them from being stepped on is that they are one of the few plants not brown at the moment!

As you can see, the center of the flower forms a cone protruding from the base. Once the flower has finished blooming, the seeds fly away on the wind, which gives the plant its name.  After its brief blooms it will go dormant in the summer.

Continue reading