Redcedar, Eastern

Name:  Redcedar, Eastern

Botanical Name: Juniperus virginiana

Form: tree

Parts Used: berries, browse

Citation: Guenther, K. (2017, January 12) Eastern redcedar as wildlife food [Web log post.] Retrieved: Readers supply the date, from

Redcedar cones.

Getting Started

Eastern redcedar is a great beginner forager food to start with because the trees are very common in Virginia, periodically produce a lot of berries that can be collected quickly and these trees are easy to identify. Plus, they are eaten by almost 50 different species of wild birds and mammals! The berries rank 19th on our Best Berries List.

What rehabber wouldn’t want a stash of juniper berries in the freezer for when the waxwings pop in?

In addition to Virginia’s two native species, there are many cultivated juniper species which can come in many forms from low, ground-hugging shrubs to upright tall trees, but one of them may be toxic, so I suggest just collecting from eastern redcedar. The other native tree we have is common juniper, but this species is threatened in some parts of Virginia and other states, so I do not recommend collecting from it.

Of the many cultivated juniper species that people plant is yards and landscaped gardens, berries from one of these species,  J. Sabina and J. oxycedrus, are considered toxic to people, so I am uncertain how it would affect animals. They are non-native landscape trees sold at nurseries under different subspecies (cultivars)—such as J. sabina ‘Mini Arcade’ and J. sabina ‘Buffalo’ and others. If you cannot verify your identification of a landscape ornamental juniper you are thinking of utilizing, then it might be best to stick with only harvesting off wild native eastern redcedars (Elpel, 2013).

Our Virginia junipers are listed below. Both are in the Cypress family. Here’s the taxonomy:

Cupressaceae (Cypress family)

Juniperus ( Juniper genus)

Common name Virginia Juniperus Species Origin Rare Plant Status
common juniper J. communis native Globally secure, but critically imperiled in Virginia.
eastern redcedar J. virginiana native Not rare
Distribution of <i>Juniperus virginiana</i> L.
Eastern redcedar. USDA, NRCS. (2015). The PLANTS Database, National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. Retrieved on a variety of dates from 2015-2017 from
This is the overall shape of this medium size tree, which often grows in large stands on newly disturbed grounds and fields.

Key Features to Look For

In addition to the identification guide of your choice, here are a couple of features you should see on eastern redcedar tree:

  • Trees are 40-50 feet tall when mature and bearing fruit
  • Evergreen, conifer tree
  • Female trees have the blue berries, male trees have very small brown cone-looking structures that sometimes put out a prodigious quantity of pollen–clouds of it!
  • Berries are round pea-sized, blue-black with a whitish film
  • Needles are pointy and prickly in a young tree, but in the mature tree that bears fruit—the needles are scaly and not sharp to the touch
  • Bark is a light reddish- brown- orange with long strips that peel off
  • Sometimes you’ll see cedar-apple rust on cedar trees. This is a plant pathogen that can occur where apple trees and redcedars are in close proximity. You may see these dramatic growths.
Fresh, wet, slimy cedar-apple rust can be so heavy on trees it looks like holiday ornaments.Or they can occur singly.
This is the remnants of cedar-apple rust growth that is now hard and dried out.


Exposure to eastern redcedar needles can cause contact dermatitis in some humans. Large quantities of Juniperus spp. browse can cause abortion or other toxic effects in cattle and sheep. Redcedar fruits (cones) are considered safe except in large quantities. (Burrows, G.E. & Tyrl, R.J., 2013; Douglas, 2004)

About this Species

Redcedar’s resinous scent is feels warming to me when I smell it on a cold winter day. This very common tree pioneers newly cleared land, so it grows often in large stands for many years in an old pasture until the hardwoods eventually grow up and replace the cedars. I often squint into the treetops trying to locate the cedar waxwing flocks I periodically hear buzzing up high in cedar woods.

Not every eastern redcedar you find will bear fruit because this tree is dioecious—male and female reproductive parts are on separate trees and only female trees bear fruit. Around my house. there always seems to a disproportionate amount of trees in any given year with no fruit, so I keep an eye out for what will be my fall-winter harvest trees starting mid-summer.

Flower Description: The flowers on the male trees are a yellow brown color. The flowers of female tree is a barely distinguishable part of the scale which turns into light blue green cone that ripens into the fruit in fall and winter.

Early March, redcedar males produce pollen, which under certain conditions can be seen as clouds of pollen rising off stands of trees.

Leaf Description: Needles are pointy and sharp in a young tree, but in a mature tree the needles and stems of small twigs have overlapping scales, like fish scales, and are softer.

Seed/ Fruit Size: Fruit is blue-black and round with a whitish film covering. The berries, vary a little in size on a tree, averaging around 3/16 inch (5 mm) in diameter. They cluster mostly around the branch. The seed within is about 1/8 inch (3-4 mm) long. There will be two yellow-tan to bluish seeds inside each fruit and the thin interior flesh of the fruit is green.

Juniper berries have a long window of harvest into winter, but eventually the cones do dry out and crumble. In heavy fruit years, the fruits will drop to the ground. When a tree is particularly heavily laden with fruit, I can pick just the “low hanging fruit” and get about 2 quarts in a few hours from a stand of several trees. You want to collect when the fruit is mature but still firm and not crumbly. Mature berries will be a dark lavender-blue color with a whitish film. Even when there are blue cones on the trees there will also be lighter blueand greenish  berries on the tree as well, so you will probably end up harvesting a mix. As long as the cones separate easily from the branch, they can be considered ready to harvest.

The fruit looks like a berry, but is actually a cone. Redcedar is a conifer, after all, so the fruit is a modified cone with scales. Looking closely with a hand lens, you may be able to see the cone’s bumps indicating scales hugged in tightly on the fruit.


Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
winter winter late winter early spring spring late spring early summer summer late summer early fall fall late fall
fruit x x x x x x x x x
browse x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

Does this lend itself as a good enrichment item? Yes. Branches can be pruned with the mature berries attached and installed in enclosures.

Young, light-color cones in May will darken and mature into fall cones or what is often referred to as “fruit.”

Nutrition: According to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Michelle Anderson, eastern redcedar browse is considered of low quality, but it is high in calcium. The redcedar fruits are considered “high in crude fat and crude fiber, moderate in calcium, and high in total carbohydrates.”

Harvesting Fruit

Hand pick the berries, it’s not difficult. Bend a heavy-laden branch over a large grocery bag and rub the fruit cluster off with your other hand. In the summer you can find and note trees with immature pale yellow-green berries on a female tree so you can come back for harvest when the berries are mature. The berries are slow to ripen to the dusty dark lavender-blue you want to pick. They should easily detach from branch when ripe.

How to Store Prepared Fruit

Since juniper berries are not a fleshy fruit at all–they are a cone– they store well in baggies, jars or plastic containers in the refrigerator for many weeks.

They do freeze well, because they are low in moisture so do not turn to mush in the freezer.  Package them into tightly sealed glass jars or thick, zipping freezer baggies (usually 3 mils thick or greater ) to keep them from drying out in the freezer. Remove as much air as possible from the baggie and store in freezer until needed.

See more detailed instructions.

Harvesting Browse

Browse as a term used on this website refers to the twigs and small branches, with or without leaves or needles, of trees, shrubs, vines and other woody stemmed plants.  Browse can also refer to bark, for the animals that gnaw on bark.

The best time to harvest browse for the health of the tree is late fall to winter, but that may not be when you need the browse. The best limbs to remove are ones that rub together and cause abrasions that can make the tree vulnerable to insect damage. Or, cut branches that are overcrowded or hang low to the ground. Prune branches back to the base where the branch meets the trunk to minimize future insect damage to the tree.

Dip pruning shears into a bleach water solution (1:3) to minimize transferring tree diseases from one tree to the next.

Place the cut end of the browse in a bucket of water as soon as possible after cutting- ideally taking a bucket of what with you as you harvest because the branch will start to close itself off the instant it is injured. Then keep them in water as much as possible prior to feeding, which ideally means even during transport.

Browse cuttings are best fed to animals right away, they do not store well for more than a day before the leaves start to wilt and dry out, especially if it is hot. Read more about cutting browse here.

Be sure to read the section about cyanide poisoning before you harvest any browse, though eastern redcedar is not a cyanogenic plant.

Cones removed from the boughs contain a lot of inedible plant bits and bark.
Use a colander or sifting screen to remove some more of the unwanted plant bits.

Other Juniper Species: Common juniper (J. communis) is a critically imperiled tree in Virginia. It can grow upright, but often stays low as a shrub—which is one notable difference from redcedar which grows as an upright tree. But a more reliable difference is that common juniper retains sharp needles even when mature.

Again, The two toxic junipers that should not be fed to animals are berries or foliage from  J. sabina and J. oxycedrus (Elpel 2013).  J. sabina is a nursery ornamental landscape plant sold throughout the U.S.A.  J. oxycedrus is a southern European tree that I believe only exists in a limited number of places in California and Colorado. Avoid it as well.

Rare Juniper Species in Virginia

Do you live in one of these Virginia counties listed below? If so, be aware that there are some species near you that may be threatened or endangered. Do more research to make sure you are identifying your target species correctly and not harvesting a threatened species.

County in Virginia Rare Juniperus Species
Bath J. communis
Brunswick J. communis
Caroline J. communis
Floyd J. communis
Grayson J. communis
Highland J. communis
Patrick J. communis
Rockingham J. communis

(Townsend, John F., 2015)


Feed Redcedar to:


(Juniperus spp.)


Caution: Large quantities of Juniperus spp. browse can cause abortion or other toxic effects in cattle and sheep. Needles can cause contact dermatitis in humans.(Burrows, G.E. & Tyrl, R.J., 2013; Douglas, 2004)

Deer, White-tailed

Odocoileus virginianus

Hare, Snowshoe

Lepus americanus


Alces americanus


(Juniperus spp.)


Caution: Juniper fruits considered safe except in large quantities.Needles can cause contact dermatitis in humans.(Burrows, G.E. & Tyrl, R.J., 2013; Douglas, 2004)


Canis latrans

strong preference

Bear, American Black

Ursus americanus

Cottontail, Eastern

Sylvilagus floridanus

Fox, Eastern Gray

Urocyon cinereoargenteus

Fox, Red

Vulpes vulpes

Opossum, Virginia

Didelphis virginiana

Raccoon, Northern

Procyon lotor

Skunk, Spotted

Spilogale putorius

Skunk, Striped

Mephitis mephitis

Squirrel, Eastern Fox

Sciurus niger

Blackbird, Red-winged

Agelaius phoeniceus

Bluebird, Eastern

Sialia sialis

Cardinal, Northern

Cardinalis cardinalis

Chickadee, Black-capped

Poecile atricapilla

Cowbird, Brown-headed

Molothrus ater

Crossbill, Red

Loxia curvirostra

Crossbill, White-winged

Loxia leucoptera

Crow, American

Corvus brachyrhynchos

Dove, Mourning

Zenaida macroura

Finch, Purple

Carpodacus purpureus

Flicker, Northern

Colaptes auratus

Flycatcher, Alder

Empidonax alnorum

Flycatcher, Willow

Empidonax traillii

Grosbeak, Evening

Coccothraustes vespertinus

Kingbird, Eastern

Tyrannus tyrannus

Kinglet, Ruby-crowned

Regulus calendula

Mockingbird, Northern

Mimus polyglottos

Nuthatch, White-breasted

Sitta carolinensis

Phoebe, Eastern

Sayornis phoebe

Robin, American

Turdus migratorius

Sapsucker, Yellow-bellied

Sphyrapicus varius

Sparrow, Fox

Passerella iliaca

Sparrow, Song

Melospiza melodia

Sparrow, White-throated

Zonotrichia albicollis

Starling, European

Sturnus vulgaris

Swallow, Tree

Tachycineta bicolor

Thrasher, Brown

Toxostoma rufum

Thrush, Hermit

Catharus guttatus

Thrush, Swainson's

Catharus ustulatus

Warbler, Black-throated Gray

Dendroica nigrescens

Warbler, Yellow-rumped

Dendroica coronata

Waxwing, Cedar

Bombycilla cedrorum

Woodpecker, Downy

Picoides pubescens

Woodpecker, Red-bellied

Melanerpes carolinus

Bobwhite, Northern

Colinus virginianus

Grouse, Ruffed

Bonasa umbellus

Grouse, Sharp-tailed

Tympanuchus phasianellus

Pheasant, Ring-necked

Phasianus colchicus

Turkey, Wild

Meleagris gallopavo

Book References

Burrows, G.E., Tyrl, R.J. (2013) Toxic Plants of North America, 2nd Edition, Oxford, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Elpel, T.J. (2013) Botany in a Day (APG). Pony, Montana: Hops Press, LLC.

Martin, A.C., Zim, H.S., Nelson, A.L. (1951). American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. New York: Dover Publications.

Scott, M. (2013). Songbird Diet Index. National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, St. Cloud, MN.

Townsend, J. F. (2015, April) Rare Plants Natural Heritage Technical Report 15-10. (Unpublished Report) Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage.

Virginia Department of Forestry (2010). Common Native Trees of Virginia: Tree Identification Guide

Online References

Anderson, Michelle D. 2003. Juniperus virginiana. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2017, January 11].

Douglas, S.M. (2004, September) Plants reported to cause dermatitis. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Retrieved January 6, 2017 from http;//

USDA, NRCS. 2015. The PLANTS Database (, 6 November 2015). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

Virginia Botanical Associates. (Accessed November 2015). Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora ( c/o Virginia Botanical Associates, Blacksburg.