Texas Tall Tales

“We alternately admire this species as a survivor and despise it because it takes from us what we want – water and grass.”

Jim Ansley on the mesquite

Untwisting the Tall Tales

The bandwagon effect is when people tend to go along with what others are thinking or doing without taking the time to examine the merits of a particular idea.  Instead, the instinct to herd is the overriding factor and people will believe or do things based solely on the idea that “everyone else” is doing the same thing.  As the beliefs are passed along, the strength of the new belief system increases.

In the Hill Country, we have the cedar bandwagon.  The purpose of this bandwagon is to bash the cedar so that we may eradicate most or all of it

Back in the days before I started writing this book, I was part of the cedar bandwagon.  I would listen and nod my head in “understanding” whenever the media, elected officials, friends, co-workers or builders informed me with great authority the many reasons why all mountain cedars are bad.  Some of the most popular reasons were that cedars are sucking water from our aquifers, they are not native, and they cause erosion.  These beliefs then lead to new beliefs, and then more, with each new belief resting its weight upon the broadly accepted merits of the former. 

When Sally Wasowski published her book, Native Texas Plants in 1988, she shed some light on the bandwagoning against the mountain cedar.  She wrote, “you hear enough people badmouthing junipers, you assume they must be bad. Trouble is, the people who are saying negative things are doing it mostly because that's what they've heard from someone else.” 

After reading this and beginning my research, I soon realized that although every argument against the mountain cedar seemed valid, none could hold up to close inspection. Almost no one I asked was able to provide concrete facts to support their claims. If evidence was shoved before me, my detective work usually found the evidence to be hogwash. 

Now then, we all are familiar with the Texas tall-tale. Well, I have learned that many of the beliefs about the mountain cedar are the tallest tales in Texas

This is not to say everything the mountain cedar is accused of is wrong, it just means some, or most, of it has been exaggerated to suit people's needs. Other tales are definitely not tales. For instance, mountain cedars do cause cedar fever, are invasive, can decrease spring flows and can burn quickly in the face of summer time fires. But there is plenty more to the story. For instance, when cedars are cleared, springs will flow, but once other woody plants grow up, the spring flows decrease again.  

I tried persuading folks to see the light.  However, most people were not willing to get off the bandwagon.

This lead me to ask, why would people so readily embrace so many negative beliefs about a tree?  For one, for decades landowners have been battling a losing battle as cedars encroach year after year into carefully procured pastures and prairies.  The tree just never stops.  This has bred a lot of frustration and contempt in the landowners that makes them accept anything bad about the cedar so as to further justify cedar eradication.

However, without a doubt, it is the rage of those that suffer from cedar fever that now leads the assault on our mountain cedars.  The most noteworthy website leading the anti-cedar cause is www.peopleagainstcedar.com..

Cedar fever is caused by the pollen that emerges in great wafts from male mountain cedars throughout our winter months.  The result is an agonizing bout of allergies.  People that are afflicted the most truly hate the tree.  To them, their relation with the cedar is emotional, and perhaps therein lies our problem. 

A 1997 Texas Monthly article by Joe Patowski illustrates the way people feel about cedar:

“It’s greedy and invasive, choking my oaks and killing my soil. It’s all over my land...I hate cedar. Especially this time of year, when central Texas cedars...dramatically release copious airborne pollens in explosive puffs of orange-red smoke whenever cold winds blow from the north. Like gnarly little fishhooks, the pollens invade my nostrils and sinuses. Before long I’m sniffling and vacant, sick and tired. I hate cedar fever. Since I moved to...Wimberley four years ago, cedar has become much more than a seasonal pain. In fact, not long after I bought my land, I discovered a different kind of cedar fever, a consuming obsession with the cursed tree. Cedar is an invader of grasslands and a horrendous water hog. It is low in nutritive value, unpalatable to cattle, and altogether unpleasant. It’s well-nigh impossible to get rid of. And it’s everywhere.”

People spend too much time “feeling” about the cedar.  It is time to put to rest or explain these beliefs so that people might learn to “think” about cedar.  Fred Wills, a narrator for the Texas Legacy Project, said it well: “Facts about cedar are perhaps less colorful than the opinions, but should be put on the table for consideration by folks who want to understand the ecology of the place where they live and play. All too often, tales about cedar serve more to entertain listeners or confirm irrational beliefs than to enlighten.”  

In this chapter, I have provided a synopsis of the most common beliefs against the mountain cedar.  The writing is brief and without references.  At the end of each belief, I provide links to relevant chapters that are very thoroughly referenced.

So read on and become enlightened...or at least intrigued.   

1. Everybody Hates Cedar

It is easy to hate cedar and many people simply want or need to hate cedar.  At the basis of their hate is an emotional need to control that which plagues them, whether it be cedar fever, the non-ending encroachment into our grasslands or the desperation for more water.

But, not everybody hates cedar.  Many of the people I talk to have only reluctantly joined the anti-cedar bandwagon because they didn’t know what else to do.  They figured, if everyone else is saying these things, then so should they.   They also figure if the media prints it, then it must be true.

The problem with the anti-cedar bandwagon is that most information has become distorted or over simplified, most notably by the media.  This has cultivated a tunnel vision that refuses to acknowledge anything good about the cedar.

2. All Cedars are Bad

When you think of cedar, you likely think of dense, juvenile bushes or impenetrable thickets of juvenile bushes that rarely exceed 20 feet in height or 30 years of age.  When cedars grow this way, they are only responding to short or long term landscape degradations.  

Over the last hundred and fifty years, people have caused degradations and stopped natural processes.  As a result, Nature has cast her bandaid, a plethora of juvenile cedars, to blanket our landscape.  It is likely these cedars are the more recent variety, Juniperus ashei v. ashei, that tends to be more aggressive and multi-trunk.  The ancestral variety, Juniperus ashei v. ovata, is associated with old-growth, mesic woodlands, grows slower and has a well defined trunk, according to Dr. Robert Adams with Baylor University who recently identified these two varieties of our cedar.

Before Europeans arrived and began their cutting and burning, our cedars were mostly old-growth, likely 100 to 500 years old, and grew on upland hills and bottomland slopes.  For every 5 to 10 juvenile cedars, you would have had a single old-growth cedar with trunks ranging from 12 inches to 48 inches wide.  This means the same amount of canopy cover, but only one single trunk and much deeper roots.  The roots would have facilitated the deep drainage of water, the older age would have used less water, the higher canopy would have allowed the movement of air and wildlife and the larger mass would have tied up more atmospheric carbon.  In short, you would have had healthy, diverse woodlands that supported a diverse array of wildlife including jaguars, black bears and passenger pigeons.  Today, those creatures are gone...and so are the old-growth cedars.

Everywhere I look I see cedars trying to reclaim their old-growth status, but we don’t let them.  We see only bad cedars that need to be cleared.

3. Cedars are not Native

Who says cedars are not native?  Is it the old-timers?  No.  Is it the plant experts?  No.  Is it the City of Austin?  Yes.  That is, until recently.

Years ago, when the City of Austin initiated its environmental ordinances it inserted Appendix F and provided a ranking of trees that grow in the Hill Country.  Each tree received checks in boxes to show if it was useful to wildlife, had flowers, etc.  It also had a box to check if it was native.  The native box for juniper was not checked.  Was it a mistake?  Nope.

Every developer, landscape architect, architect, real estate agent and planner has seen this list.  This list has also been passed to every city, town and hamlet in the central Texas region.  And now everyone who doesn’t know plants, believes junipers are not native.

But, the tree is native.  And not just a little bit...a whole Texas bit.  It has been here at least since the last Ice Age, and that was over 10,000 years ago.  That makes it more native than we are.

4. Cedars were Uncommon

Everywhere I go in Texas, I hear that the Hill Country before the turn of the 20th century was an endless sea of grass dotted with oak parklands.  This perception has led many to surmise that cedars were uncommon, if present at all, and that fires forced the cedar into the confines of steep canyons and narrow draws.

This could have been true if fires had been able to burn everywhere unimpended every 3-5 years.  However, the Hill Country terrain is far too broken to allow for such consistent burning.  It is more likely the burn rate would have been eradicate...ranging from every 5 to every 50 years, or even longer, for any given area depending on the terrain, vegetation, grazing patterns of large herbivores, wind and drought conditions.

Looking at the broader picture, the writings of settlers, explorers and missionaries reveal the broad expanses of grasslands did exist west and east of the Hill Country.  Also, to the north, the northern region of the Hill Country, known as the Lampassas Cut Plains, was about 70 percent grass.  This is because that region, even though part of the escarpment, is much more eroded and level.  Therefore fires could travel more easily.  Even early maps show the Lampassas area was likely mostly grass since it was shown as the land of mustangs and cattle.  There is also the Tonkawa medicine wheel which is now covered with oaks and cedars.  Obviously, the Tonkawa did not create this rather large medicine wheel with trees in place.  They would have laid it out in a grassy prairie.

But, in the broken, hilly terrain of the Balcones Canyonlands and the Llano Uplift, the land was covered with woody plants as much as they were covered with grasses.  The tree cover was comprised of forests, woodlands, thickets and shinneries.  The open areas were comprise of meadows, open grass, parklands, savannas, mottes, cacti and just rock.  Just about every type of cover imaginable was well represented in the Hill Country.  It was a land of constant change and adaptation.  It was a mosaic.

As for the cedar, it was not scarce nor uncommon 150 years ago.  One quote written by Victor Bracht in 1848 captures attention.  It reads,  “Live oak, holly, many kinds of cactus...and the millions of cedar that cover the Comal hills like a mantle, preserve the pleasant picture of summer when the icy northers sweep down on us in November."    No mention here of scarce cedar.  One hundred fifty years ago, cedar was a common sight observed growing along the upper slopes of upland and bottomland hills, on bluffs and buttes, and inside post oak forests, live oak mottes and shinneries.

For a very thorough analysis of the past vegetation, including how perceptions and geographical references have changed or been misinterpreted, please refer to the following links.

Chapter X A Land of Old-Growth cedar Brakes

Chapter X Paradise Lost

Chapter X The Subculture of Charcoal Burners & Cedar Choppers

5. Cedars are Tremendous Water Hogs

As I write this, it is October 2008 and we haven’t seen a signifcant rain event since winter.  Everything is dry and crunchy and people are getting nervous.  We need more water.

It is at times such as these that people start casting their gazes to our cedar tree.  Past research and the corporate media have effectively promoted the cedar as a tree that consumes an outrageous amount of water.  In 1996, a report by Dr. Keith Owens stated that our cedars used in the study were found to use 33 gallons of water per day.  In comparison, live oaks were found to use 19 gallons.  When that report was published, that 33 gallon number was immediately transformed into gospel.  

So, am I going to say our cedars do not use 33 gallons of water per day?  No.  But I will say that not all cedars use 33 gallons a day.  I will also say 33 gallons are not used every day by the ones that do use 33 gallons.  I will also say it was jut an estimate and that it should only be applied to juvenile cedars.

The subject of Dr. Owens’ research was a 10 foot cedar and a 10 foot live oak.  The 10 foot cedar was dense and bushy, as is typical of cedars growing in full sun.  The live oak was relatively sparse, as is typical of young live oaks.  

It is because the cedar was so dense that it used two times more water than the live oak.  This fact is made apparent when you examine Dr. Owens’ 1992 study that compared a handful of cedar leaves to a handful of live oak leaves.  when the amount of leaves are the same, the live oak will use 3 times more water than the cedar.

This being said, it can be assumed that when a cedar has about the same density of leaves as a live oak, such as a pruned up cedar or an old-growth cedar, then the water use of the cedar will be equal to or possibly less than a comparable live oak.

Another thing to note about Dr. Owens’ 1996 study is that the 33 gallon number was an average.  During dry periods, cedars, like the live oaks, used very little, if any, water.  So then, cutting down cedars during a drought is not going to help.  In fact, it is likely to make conditions drier because the soil will no longer be shaded and will dry out.  The varied water use by cedars also shows that, just because it’s evergreen, doesn’t mean it is constantly using water.b

I also said Dr. Owens’ number was an estimate.  There was no direct measurements taken of sap flow inside the tree.  Another study on a similar 10 foot cedar by Dr. Bill Dugas, ___, used a direct measurement technique and found cedars use 2-6 gallons of water per day.  This discrepancy poses too many questions for me.

Lastly, the cedar study was a juvenille.  Juvenille cedars, like all youngsters, grow aggressively and need more food and water.  Older cedars, with their matured heartwood, have settled in their ways, and likely use less water.  The lower water use by older trees has been proven for tree species worldwide.  At TAMU, Dr. Georgianne Moore is currently studying this issue regarding our cedar.

6. Cedars Caused our Springs to Decline

Anyone who knows about cedar, has been told that if you clear your cedars, your springs will flow.  Indeed, there does seem to be an increase, even if only temporary, that does occur.  This observation has lead to the assumption that if clearing cedars brings back springs, then it must have been the cedars that made our springs go away. This is not entirely true.

First, we need to differentiate between our two types of springs: artesian and gravity.  Artesian springs are those that truly spring with force from rocks.  A fine example is Aquarena Springs in San Marcos.  

The force behind our artesian springs has been reduced not by a spread of cedars, but by a decrease in pressure caused by people.  The first wells drilled by Europeans had so much pressure that no pumps were needed.  Convinced they were living in a land of milk and honey, the settlers did not cap their wells.  By the 1880’s, the pressure had been reduced so much that pumps had to be installed.  These days there are so many straws in the coke bottle, the pressure has been reduced even more.

The second type of spring, gravity springs have no real force behind their exit.  They are really just larger seeps.  Changes in soil and plant cover can affect these springs.  

When soil becomes so degraded that it can no longer soak up much rainwater, then most water just flows overland.  If it doesn’t soak into the soil, then it cannot emerge further down slope as a seep.  To compound the problem with bad soils, a cover of dense, juvenile pioneering cedars will use more water than a sparse cover of grass, thus potentially reducing your spring flows.

The best alternative to simplistic cedar clearing is to focus on improving soil health.  Better soils will absorb more water, decrease flooding and benefit the establishment of healthy grasslands and woodlands with deep roots that, in turn, benefit spring flows.

7. Cedars Suck Water from the Aquifer

Let’s reflect upon the word suck.  To suck is to create a vacuum by which a substance may be drawn up.  An infant’s active sucking on a bottle provides a good example.  Now, let’s think about the mountain cedar.  Where inside the this tree is the mechanism by which large volumes may be actively sucked upwards?  Where’s the pump? Well, it doesn’t exist.  

The most any plant can do is to evaporate water from their leaves.  When this happens, the next batch of water is pulled up through the roots.  But only to displace the evaporated water.  There is no active sucking.

Since cedars can’t actively suck water, they certainly are not going to be able to affect aquifer levels, even if they could get their roots deep enough.  

8. Clearing Cedars will Recharge the Aquifer

In 19__, a Texas Agriculural Extension Agent, Tom Thurow, reported that we could increase aquifer recharge if 90 percent of all  woody vegetation and taller grasses were eradicated from these hills.  This scientist assumed that by removing a large chunk of vegetation, the water used by the plants would be removed and that water would end up in our aquifers.  

Basically, Thurow had propose that we turn our hills into a desert and say good-bye to all soil that remains.  That soil would then end up filling in recharge cracks so that all runoff would bypass the aquifer and race to the Gulf Coast.   We would be left with an ugly landscape, a critical loss of wildlife habitat, and ultimately, less water than we started with.  As Larry White  reflected in 2000, the Hill Country would basically need to be a parking lot.  According to Fred Wills, “it would be far better to keep the trees and simply use less water.”

What we now know is that mass clearings of any more robust vegetation does not affect aquifer levels.  Dr. Brad Wilcox, chief hydrologist at TAMU, discovered that regardless of vegetation, aquifers will recharge the same amount.  This is because recharge occurs during periods of high-intensity storms.  During those storms, water bypasses all vegetation, including our ubiquitous cedar.

The more realistic goal would be to focus on enhancing localized spring flows.

9.  Cedars Cause Erosion

There are two things that directly cause erosion: wind and water.  When the soil is exposed to either, you get erosion. Erosion is a serious issue in a land that holds several flash flood world records.

It has often been cited that cedars intercept a lot of rain in their canopy and litter.  If this is the case, then how can they also be accused of causing erosion?   This is especially interesting since the Texas Parks and Wildlife ranks our cedar as excellent for erosion control

Cedars cover the ground with a thick, matted litter and a dense, evergreen canopy.  This double cover not only protects the existing soil beneath their canopies, but also promotes building of new soil.  It is because of their litter and canopy that cedars not only do not cause erosion, but that they control erosion and they do so better than a poor cover of grass.

You might submit to the idea that cedars do not cause erosion beneath their canopies, but will still point to eroded spaces between the cedars.  I have been told and have read many times that that cedars spread their roots into those spaces and suck up the water that would otherwise go to the grasses.  Indeed, it is a common sight across these hills to see eroded ground existing between cedars.  But what are the cedars really causing this interspace erosion?

When you have crusty caliche soils, grasses are at a disadvantage.  Even if you took away all the cedars, you would still have erosion.  This is because the grasses will not produce a solid cover.   When you have dense, young cedars growing amongst such grasses, the spreading roots of the cedar will likely outcompete your grasses for water.  Thus, the grasses become more sparse and erosion becomes more severe.  There were be a period of time when erosion worsens.  If the cedar continues to spread, it will eventually crowd out all grasses and become a cedar thicket.  At that point, erosion will be controlled.  In short, grasses on rocky soils do not control erosion and neither do cedars as they initially invade a rocky slope.  However, an established thicket of cedar does control erosion.  Should this thicket be allowed to evolve into an old-growth woodlands, then that woodland will provide superior erosion control...even if it consists of all old-growth cedars.

Old-growth cedars are not a problem.  Older trees use less water and have much deeper roots.  The result is grasses that can handle some shade will easily grow under cedars.  Examples are little bluestem, side oats grama, and silver bluestem.

What always makes matters worse is when you add sheep, goats or cows.  As cedars move into a pasture, their wide bushy form will displace the amount of ground previously open to grasses.  If the rancher does not reduce the number of head or the number cedar, then the remaining grasses will get overgrazed.  It’s as simple as that.

10. Nothing Grows Under Cedars

At the 1997 Juniper Symposium in San Angelo, I asked if cedar was toxic to other plants.  Dr. Fred Smeins stood up and proclaimed that there are no toxics that suppress the growth of plants under cedars. 

If there are no toxins, then why is it common to see almost no plants growing beneath our cedars?  First, think of what most cedars look like to you.  Are they dense and bushy?  Tightly packed and thickety?  If you said yes to either of these characteristics, then you are looking at juvenile cedars.  With these cedars, low, dense branches keep out the sun and most wildlife.  

When you prune up about one third of these cedars, more sun will benefit new plants, including grasses.  When you prune up, you also allow more wildlife movement under the cedars, which means more digging and pooping.  Digging breaks the matted litter so that seeds can make contact with the soil.  Pooping introduces green organic matter to balance the soil microbes and leaves behind seeds.

Mountain cedars are woodland trees.   This means they will benefit all other woodland plants.   Trees that become established in low light conditions thrive under cedars.   Typically, these trees produce seeds, acorns or nuts that are larger and therefore have an easier time breaking into the matter cedar litter.  This is why, if you take the time and stop looking for only grass, you will begin to see numerous tree and bush sprouts.

Our cedars provide the shady, moist microclimates woodland “newbies” love and the network of dead branches they need to avoid being browsed by deer.  In this latter sense, cedars act as nursery trees.  Tress such as Texas madrone, gum bumelia, possumhaw, and  Texas red oak often cannot get a start anywhere else but within the protective branches of our cedars.

11. Cedars Choke Live Oaks

One day I was talking with someone at the Pease Park dog park in Austin.   When he asked what I did, I told him I did landscape restoration and design and was writing a book on the cedar.  He then told me he worked at McKinney Roughs and that they told him cedars are the killing live oaks.  A month or so later, someone else told me the cedar has toxins in its leaves that causes live oak leaves to die wherever the two come into contact.  I then read a few times that gaggles of cedars under live oaks have the undeniable capacity to actively choke the life out of the live oaks.

I had to see this for myself, so I hit the local parks.  I found that older live oaks grow quite well with older cedars with no signs of leave drop .  In contrast, whenever I encountered a “gaggle” of juvenile cedars clustered under an older live oak, I saw leaf drop.   I encountered gaggle after gaggle and they all looked the same.  Then I saw something different: a gaggle of yaupon growing under an older live oak.  As with the cedar gaggle, there was live oak leaf drop where the yaupon came in contact with the live oak.  I continued my searching and eventually found red oak and silk tassel gaggles afflicting the live oaks with the same leaf drop.

One morning as I was sitting at my property thinking about things, I watched the wind rubbing the end of the live oak branches across an up and coming cedar gaggle.  Suddenly, a few leaves fell off the oak.  Then a few more.  It then dawned on me that the live oak leaf drop is only a result of the leaves being rubbed off in the wind.  

But should you keep the gaggle intact?  Some arborists have seen that when you clear out everything under older live oaks, they will exhibit more stress than with the gaggle intact.  This is especially true if the clearing exposes the rootball to our beating sun and you have eroded soil.  With this in mind, I typically clear on the east and north sides and just thin on the south and west.  I also cut out any gaggle parts that are adversely rubbing the oak leaves. 

12.  Cedar Removal will End Cedar Fever

Those that suffer from cedar fever typically despise our mountain cedars so much that they will go outside and chop down all of their cedars.  Half of the time the trees cut down have berries, rather fleshy cones, and this makes them female.  Only the male trees produce the copious pollen.

Will it help to just cut down yours and your neighbors male cedars??  Nope...unless you plan on annihilating every single male cedar that grows in the central Texas region.  This is because once that pollen gets airborne it doesn’t settle down until it’s about 200 miles away.  This is why Frank Dobie used to pack up and head to the coast every cedar fever season.

13. Cedar Pollen is Toxic

I know people hate the way cedar pollen makes them feel.  It is a miserable, annual experience caused by the pervasive pollen that is catapulted into our skies by male cedar trees come every December through February.  This winter of 2011 has already been the worst in almost a decade.

The extreme aggravation and fever caused by the pollen has lead some folks to surmise that the pollen is toxic.  It is not.  It is just a vicious allergen with nasty, little hooks.  The encouraging thing is that there are now products and techniques that reduce or even eliminate your suffering, such as Allergena Zone 5.

14. Cedar Removal is Endless

Even though there are many cedars that grow in the right place, there are also many cedars that have rampantly invaded places they did not grow before Europeans arrived.  To get rid of cedar in the latter places,  you will need to think outside of the box if you are going to stop the endless cycle of clearing.

But first, there are just some places in the hills where you should not be trying to get rid of your cedars.  These are the steepest slopes.  You know, the ones developers love to clear to open a view for a new home.  The resulting wash out is devastating once the trees are clearcut and it is very difficult to get a equal cover of grass.  The grasses that do grow will be not cover the ground as effectively as a dense canopy of trees that will produce a thick layer of litter.  So, keep tree cover on slopes greater than 30 degrees.  It doesn’t have to be 100 percent cover.  But when you get to 45 degrees slope, it should be 80-100 percent cover.

Once you get to the lower slopes, rolling expanses and flats, that is where many, if not all, cedars can come out.  I am not in favor of cedar annihilation because these trees do have many intrinsic values.  However, your goals might dictate areas of complete cedar removal.

The best part about our cedars is they do not resprout when you cut them low.  The redberry juniper to our west does resprout, along with mesquite.  So thank your blessings there.

Our biggest problem is we no longer have soils that support the vigorous growth of grasses.  They are eroded and have become more fungal based than bacterial based.  They are lacking in life and water holding capacity and they continue to be overgrazed.  When grasses get the soil they need, they will cover the ground and crowd out most invading cedars and other woody plants.  If our soils are the problem, then it is our soils we must focus upon, not 101 ways to destroy a cedar.

15. Indians Used Fire to Control Cedars

People love to say Indians set fires and that controlled our cedar.  If Indians had burned regularly, then this would support the endless sea of grass myth.  

Tonkawas mostly inhabited the Lampassas Cut Plains of the Hill Country.  One Tonkawa, Faeghan White Wolf, told me in that more open land sometimes they did start their own fires, but that lightning mostly took care of the job.  

The more broken regions of the Hill Country were home to mostly the Lipan Apache before the Comanches arrived.  Spanish missionaries wrote in their journals that in was difficult keeping the Lipan Apaches as permanent fixtures at the Mission San Lorenzo (??)  Every Fall, the Indians would leave the mission to hunt the buffalo that roamed the central and western Edwards Plateau.  No mention of Lipans burning to attract the buffalo or using fire in any way to control vegetation.

The theory that Indians used fire to control vegetation is based on the writings of Cabeza de Vaca.  He mentioned one time that Indians on the coast used fire to ward off mosquitos.  People have theorized that if Indians used fire there, then they must have used it everywhere.  

If any fires were started, it was more likely an accident from cooking or warring.  In 1997 Dr. Fred Smeins, a well respected TAMU range ecologist,  reported, “No well-documented record of the extent and frequency of fire in Texas exists for the period of the Holocene or during the time of the early Native Americans.”   Did Smeins mean there were no fires?  No.  It just means we still have no clue.  So when someone says Indian fires controlled cedar, do not believe them.  Same goes if someone says there were no fires.

16. Cedars are Highly Flameable

I attended a City of Austin fire workshop not too long ago.   At one point, the lecturer, Dr. White ?? from Baylor University, said that some of the most flameable plants in the Hill Country are yaupon, evergreen sumac and rosemary.  Grasses are also extremely flameable, but not because of internal combustible substances.  They are simply fine fuel.  When I asked about our cedar, we were told the tree is only moderately flameable.

17. Cedars are Not Used by Wildlife

One morning as I was looking out the window, I saw a white-tailed deer doe meandering through some young cedars.  She then stopped, pushed her nose into a cedar, and bit off a mouthful.  If you’re thinking like most folks, you will probably assume this occurred during an extreme drought when the doe had no other choice but to starve.

How wrong you are.  This doe ate the cedar in the middle of spring when rains and tantalizing fresh forbs were aplenty.  This doe ate cedar when there was plenty of other food.  Others, such as Beyrl Armstrong, have noticed that deer will consume cedar even when more choice foods are aplenty.  Yet, still they will take mouthfuls of cedar.  Why?  I believe deer instinctively know there is something beneficial about our cedar.  Perhaps they smell the presence of vitamin C and camphor. 

Even though deer do eat cedar, they do not eat a lot of it.  Deer devour possumhaw, red oak and bumelia leaves, not cedar leaves.  Too bad, because that would be a way to control our cedar.  On the other hand, Chuck “Butch” Taylor has goats that will eat cedar and little else.  

Besides deer and goats, there are a few caterpillars that feed on cedar leaves.  These caterpillars are then fed on by the golden-cheek warbler after it finishes feeding on oak bugs.

For those who don’t know, the golden-cheek warbler is an endangered songbird that nests only in the Hill Country.  It relies not only on bugs in cedar and oaks, but also on the bark that shreds from older cedars to build its nests.  Some folks have claimed all you need is one older cedar per warbler habitat to satisfy the warbler.  This would be okay if no other critter used the bark.  However, just about every other nest forming animal will use the soft, aromatic strips to build their nest.  Larger animals will tear up the bark.  If there is only one cedar, it will soon die and then there will be none.  You need at least 10 percent of your trees in a given area to keep nest builders and cedar happy.

With most Hill Country wildlife, it is not the leaves of the cedar that hold significant value, it is the fleshy cone fruits.  Every fruit eating critter, such as the coyote, ringtail cat, pocket mouse, gray fox, Northern cardinal and Western bluebird eat the fruits of our cedars. These days, robins and cedar waxwings consume the most fruits, although 150 years ago, passenger pigeons were the fruit hogs.  The fruits were so popular with the pigeons, that farmers began burning vast woodlands of cedars to keep the pigeons from moving into their crops and devastating them.  

Now then, looking at the entire cedar. It is evergreen.  Juvenile cedars in full sun grow as dense bushes.  Corridors and edges of evergreen cedar bushes provide an excellent means of escape and a means to reduce the chilling affects of our strong, winter winds.  Older cedars, with higher evergreen canopies and horizontal branches, provide overhead shelter within the woodland and the perfect lookouts for roosting wild turkeys.  Yes, you heard me right...turkey roosts.   

18. Cedars are Worthless

The early settlers and Indians certainly did not view our cedar as worthless.  In fact, they held it in high regard.  

When people tell me the tree has no redeeming value, I tell them about the cedarwood oil extraction plants we have in the Hill Country.  Texarome in Leakey extracts and refines its own wood oil and sends it off to New York, Tokyo and Paris to be blended with fragrances of some of the world’s most desired perfumes.  People are often stumped.  They had no idea our lowly cedar was associated with international economics.

Our cedar produces a wonderfully rustic and seductively aromatic wood that locals craftsmen shape into beds, dressers, rails, tables and chairs.  As a landscape designer, I often spec the use of our native cedar to construct pergolas, arbors, fences and gates.  My own home sports a massive pergola that combines our cedar with Eastern red cedar and a cedar stay fence I constructed using slim cedar pickets cut from my bottomland.

There are many other ways to use our cedar.  The leaves, berries, sap and charcoal also have uses...many of them unrealized.  As far as I can see, the more use we get out of this tree, the more it will help offset the costs of land management.  Down the road, this could mean less dependence on goverment funding.

Wrap up...

Our cedar is a native tree, well adapted to the limestone canyons and hills of the Edwards Plateau. Their spread, once limited by occasional wildfires, roaming herds of buffalo and lush grasses growing in healthy soils, they have now spread beyond upland hills and bottomland canyons into the more open flat to rolling terrains.  

Before the mass of clear cutting and burning that destroyed most of our old-growth cedar brakes, people actually respected the cedar.  These days, we despise it.  But there is much good to be discovered with the tree, we just need to open our eyes and start start thinking. 

Remodeling and Home Design