Folks talk a lot of smack about cedar trees, especially when “cedar fever” starts up this time of year. And no wonder. Each successive cool front that hits the Hill Country encourages another release of the tree’s notorious pollen into the air. On particularly chilly mornings, clouds of pollen can turn the tops of hills blue.
Pretty? Yes, but that blue stuff is incredibly irritating to the ol’ nasal passages.
Still, there’s more to those pesky cedars than cedar fever. Below is a roundup of information you might not know, especially if you are a newcomer or only really think about the trees when their pollen creates trouble.
1. They are not actually “cedars.” Often called “mountain cedar,” their fancy Latin name is Juniperus ashei. Thus, they are juniper trees, technically, and we’d be more accurate if we called them “Ashe juniper.” Besides, doesn’t “juniper fever” have a nicer ring to it?
2. They provide cover for wildlife, taking up root readily in poor soils, and are drought tolerant. Large animals like deer and smaller ones like the famous golden-cheeked warbler find refuge among their limbs, raising their young and moving about undetected from predator species through dense collections of trees that form “cedar breaks.” That the trees provide shelter for animals and birds is a fact celebrated by some landowners. Others? They see the trees as little more than weeds and make a routine effort to take them out.
Part of the push to eliminate the trees comes from a belief that the they are not only drought tolerant but also water greedy. Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve in Blanco County reports that after they worked to restore their original habitat—including restoring native grasses and taking out the cedar—their springs began flowing again. (Other land management folks point to live oak trees as being water greedy, too, yet no one seems to complain about them.)
3. They have cultural significance. There’s a bit of back and forth ongoing about whether or not the trees are invasive, native, or invasive natives. What can’t be denied–and is frankly too often overlooked–is that the trees have provided many families with a way to make a living. No, that’s not the set-up for a joke about keeping pharmacists and drugstore stockers employed when the pollen is high. Long ago, you see, the trees were used to make charcoal and lumber.
Author John Phillip Santos mentions the harvesting of the trees in his thoughtful, award-winning memoir Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation. Moreover, the importance of wood chopped down in the “cedar breaks” is well documented by local historians. (To better grasp Ashe juniper’s influence upon the Hill Country, check out the entry on Bergheim via the Handbook of Texas Online. You can also visit the community’s historic country store, which is filled with the trees’ heavy scent.)
4. Their pollen is legendary. Years ago, while I was working on a story for The Daily Yonder, a Leon Springs allergist told me that cedar fever is of interest even to her non-Texas professional peers. The pollen is noteworthy, you see, not only is it prolific but also because of the size of the individual pollen grains. Weirdly, because of their size, those tiny suckers create problems for people who have no other known environmental allergies. “When they hear where I’m from, other allergists tease me that I lose my Christmas week because of all the patients,” said Dr. Dalys Gomez back in 2010.
5. Some trees get gussied up for Christmas. Every December a few roadside junipers seem to sprout overnight sparkly tinsel garland and flashy Christmas balls. Some trees are decorated in honor of loved ones lost in car accidents; others are done up just for fun. You’ll find them in rural and urban areas alike, although stretches of Austin’s 360 and San Antonio’s 1604 roadways are particularly popular with the tree-trimming “elves.”
When you do see an Ashe juniper decked out for the season, consider it an attempt by locals to inject a little good cheer into humanity’s ambivalent relationship with the local “mountain cedar.”
In other words, it’s a Hill Country thing, y’all.
Story and photographs by Pamela Price, who has written a story every other year for a decade about Ashe juniper, all in hopes that Mother Nature might cut her some slack during cedar fever season. (No, it hasn’t worked. Not yet.)