Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eastern red cedar

In the backyard, I arranged 3 bird feeders around the perimeter of an large Eastern red cedar. On cold afternoons, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and white-throated sparrows hide out in the dense branches, keeping close watch on the feeders while waiting for the plush fox squirrels to finish gorging on seed that is rightfully theirs. In the front yard, two cedars grow next the street. One has been hit by a car at least once and the other grows in such a strange spot that it must have been here before the house. Otherwise, the placement doesn't make sense.

I never had a problem with cedars until I moved to Missouri. After learning more about them, I'm compelled to grab a chainsaw and remove a large part of my yard's canopy. My yard, however, is so far divorced from its natural state (having been developed and incorporated since 1938), that ecological stewardship really wouldn't improve anything. So, the cedars will stay and the wintering birds will keep their shelter.

Eastern red cedars are native to the eastern U.S. and occur in almost every county in Missouri. In the Ozarks, large, gnarled cedars averaging 500 years old grow on rocky outcroppings in shallow limestone-based soils. As large, individual trees, they have a rightful place in Ozark ecosystems; but in the absence of land management and with the presence of largescale grazing, cedars have aggressively moved into woodlands, glades, and prairies, creating dense thickets that shade out any traditional herbaceous growth.

The historical Ozark landscape was largely shaped by fire. Coming off the prairies in the west, fire crept across the rocky landscape, keeping the understory free of brush while encouraging the growth of oaks, hickories, native grasses and wildflowers. Small cedars are intolerant of fire, so the frequent low surface fires kept them in check. During the past 80 years, since the days of open range grazing that encouraged this cedar invasion, natural fires have been squelched and cedars now grow prolifically throughout the Ozarks.

Dense stands of cedar not only shade out understory grasses and wildflowers, but they leach out a resinous substance which actually restricts plant growth. Public land managers in the Ozarks have made cedar removal a top priority. While small cedars are intolerant of fire, large cedars are resistant to it. Moreover, fire is unable to penetrate thick stands of cedar due not only to lack of grassy fuels, but to the high humidities caused by the dense canopy. Now, in prairies, woodlands and glades throughout the Ozarks, crews set out with chainsaws to remove large cedars, piling them into big heaps to burn. Once cedars are cut below the lowest branches, they won't resprout. After large cedars are removed and burned, fire is sent through the area to kill any smaller sprouts that were spared by the saw. It usually takes at least two years before biodiversity returns to the treated area.

Ecological stewardship is big business in the Ozarks these days. Thousands of dollars and Americorps hours are spent on cedar removal and other invasive species control. The few native plants that grow in my yard are typical of the glaciated plains and outer Ozark border. Once I start my own rigorous stewardship plan to remove the thriving populations of exotics (bush honeysuckle, wintercreeper and Japanese honeysuckle) from the yard, I won't even have time to begrudge the cedars in my midst.

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