Friday, January 4, 2013

Meet the Juniper (AKA Eastern Red Cedar)

Middle Tennessee is known for its cedar trees.  We even have a state park called Cedars of Lebanon.  The trouble is, the trees we call cedars are actually a type of tree called a juniper.  Our cedars have all the plant parts and structures of junipers, yet we call them Eastern Red Cedars.  Names are difficult to change once we get used to them, but I'm going to call our cedars junipers in this post.  The scientific name of our Middle Tennessee junipers is Juniperus virginiana, meaning juniper of the Virginia region.
Meet one of the junipers at our outdoor classroom.
Junipers have a million interesting characteristics.  My favorite thing about them is the difference in their immature and mature foliage (leaves).  Their mature leaves are smooth, rounded overlapping scales like you see in the picture below.  Junipers' immature foliage is sharp and spiky.  The easiest way to tell if foliage on a juniper is young or older is to close your eyes and feel the difference.  Fortunately, junipers are evergreen trees, so this is a great time of year to investigate their foliage.
Mature growth on a juniper.
Below is a juniper tree whole foliage is almost entirely immature.  It is about as big as the juniper in the picture above, so it must be about as old.  Spiky immature foliage protects young junipers from being eaten by deer or other animals.  I noticed the tree below was damaged and had its main stem cut.  Perhaps the tree is maintaining spiky, defensive foliage in response to what must have felt like a big bite to the tree (if trees could feel).
Spiky immature growth on a juniper.
On the branch below, you can see both mature foliage on older growth and immature foliage on new growth.  You can also see the cutest, tiniest cones you ever saw on an evergreen tree.  Juniper trees have two varieties: just like humans, they come in male and female forms.  Males trees produce cones like the ones you see below.  Female trees produce slightly larger purple cone-structures we call berries (because they look like berries).  Female trees must be larger before they can produce berries, so I didn't see any berries on our juniper trees, but we should have some in a few years.  We'll have to wait a few years to find out if any of our junipers are females.  Juniper berries are technically somewhat edible, but they have such a strong flavor that they are used mostly as a spice or flavoring.
Male cones, mature growth and immature growth on a juniper.
Below is the real prize.  I found one of these at the outdoor classroom, and I'm not telling where - you're going to have to find it!  No, it is not a piece of gum that someone stuck in the tree.  It is a fungus called cedar apple rust.  It grows on junipers (ok, cedars) for half its life, and it grows on apple trees for the other half of its life.  On junipers, it forms brown hard globs for most of the year.  After a warm spring rain, each of the dimples in the brown glob will sprout a bright orange spaghetti-shaped strand (I'm not making this up!).  The orange things produce spores that float away on the wind, land on a growing apple, and make the surface of the apple look splotchy.  The apple-stage of the fungus then makes spores that float and land on a juniper.  And you thought human life was complicated!
Juniper with cedar apple rust.

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