Give Cedars a Break

The Ashe juniper gets demonized this time of year, but what about its many benefits -- to the land, to enterprising charcoal sellers, to elves?

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Come December in the Texas hill country, you may encounter a random, roadside juniper tree newly decorated with cheap tinsel and plastic ornaments. There’s risk involved in guerilla Yuletide decorating, however. Venture close to an Ashe juniper this time of year and you could wind up at the medicine cabinet.

“Cedar fever” refers to the powerful allergic reaction many people have to the pollen that male trees of Juniperus ashei—commonly referred to as “cedar” or “mountain cedar” locally—release into the air from November to March or April. Cedar fever is both malady and moneymaker. Store shelves run low on antihistamines, decongestants and nasal lavage supplies during winter months. Meanwhile, print and broadcast journalists churn out the annual “how to survive cedar fever” stories (Ahem, guilty…), some of which appear alongside ads for prescription pharmaceuticals.

Among American allergy specialists, Central Texas is known as the “allergy capital” largely because of the especially high concentration of Ashe junipers. “When they hear where I’m from, other allergists tease me that I lose my Christmas week because of all the patients,” said Dalys Gomez, an allergist based in Leon Springs, Texas.

USDA Forest Service, via City Data
The range of Juniperus ashei, also known as mountain cedar.

Truth be told, cedar pollen “plague” is to be blamed, in part, on human activity. With the encroachment of people and overgrazing by cattle, much of the hill country’s ground has become exposed, an invitation to cedars to set root. Moreover, the influx of new residents into the area has meant that cleansing, rejuvenating wildfires are frowned upon.

“Nature doesn’t like bare ground,” says Myfe Moore, an area historian and rancher whose Texas lineage runs back five generations. “Nature protects herself, covers the ground with cedar, which will grow anywhere. But those who demonize cedars are just wrong.”

Yet demonize cedars we Texans have. We’ve accused them of drinking too much water from the Edwards Aquifer and of being just ugly. There’s a debate, too, about whether or not the tree is native. This being the Information Age, there’s even a web site called People Against Cedars “to make the public aware of this menace.”

Menace?

“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,” wrote Dripping Springs landscape designer Elizabeth McGreevy.

It’s not smoke but pollen from the mountain cedar, kicking off Central Texans’ allergies every winter.

Following her own research into the cedar “myths,” McGreevy discovered that while all the charges against mountain cedar seemed valid, “none could hold up to close inspection.”

One of the biggest tall tales is that mountain cedars are water-greedy.

“Tell me live oaks don’t drink a lot of water,” said Moore, who is a self-described aquifer and riparian guardian. She adds that where too many cedars have been removed, “you have a horrible erosion problem.”

Perhaps it’s because passions run high (and congestion heavy) that writers are drawn to these trees. In the late ‘90s, Joe Nick Patoski wrote a piece for Texas Monthly examining “the war on cedar.” Since the magazine began back in 1973, it has chronicled Texans’ push-pull relationship with the trees at least once every decade. An April 1978 story titled “A Sneezer’s Guide to Texas,” and wittily subtitled “Don’t bother moving if you suffer allergies. If cedar doesn’t get you, the dust storms will,” related how folklorist J. Frank Dobie, who suffered from allergies, was fired from The University of Texas at Austin in the 1940s for taking an unapproved leave of absence to escape the pollen.

Pamela Price
Juniperus ashei, windblown but all decked out on the roadside in Kendall County, Texas. “Elves” decorated the Christmas balls with their nicknames.

In Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation (2006), San Antonio native and author John Phillip Santos described an elderly family member, cedar trees, and their connection to the hill country’s once vibrant charcoal industry. I discovered in historians Emilie & Fritz Toepperwein’s 1986 booklet Charcoal and Charcoal Burners that at the turn of the last century there was an entire subculture of people living in the cedar breaks near the Kendall and Bexar county lines, making a living by burning and trading charcoal.

Today, of course, the only residents of cedar breaks are critters like the much-beloved (and endangered) native Golden-cheeked Warbler. The birds feast on Ashe juniper berries and use the bark to create their nests.

“The large ‘barrel cedars can grow to be 10 to 15 feet tall and about that wide, they protect all kinds of little birds and animals from freezing. They are a barrier against all kinds of inclement weather,” said Moore.

Menace? How about economic force. Cultural icon. Wildlife habitat. Soil conservator. Roadside cheer.

 

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