Ark of Taste
Eastern Red Cedar Berries
The Eastern Red Cedar is an indigenous tree to North America. It is not a true cedar but rather an evergreen juniper that grows in a range of soils and can tolerate adverse conditions. The tree can endure occasional flooding as well as drought. The Eastern Red Cedar is referred to as a pioneer species, which means it can be the first tree to repopulate cleared, eroded, or damaged land. It can grow to a height of 40-50 ft with a spread of 8-20 feet at maturity. Male and female cones grow on separate trees, the male cones are yellowish brown while the female cones are shaped like a berry with 1-3 seeds in each. Juniper berries are not real berries, they are the female cones that appear berry-like.
Historical Info and Preservation Efforts
Juniper berries have been used for centuries as both food and medicine. Some Native American cultures referred to the Eastern Red Cedar as “ The Tree of Life”. The berries were used for ceremonial rites, medicine, and consumption. The Berries were also added as seasoning to many roasted meats. Colonial craftsman used the Eastern Red Cedar wood as a building material for both furniture and fencing. The wood is easy to work with and has good rot resistance. The young leafy twigs of the Eastern Red Cedar were listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1820-1894 for their health benefits. The Eastern Red Cedar was a staple in the pencil industry until the 1940’s, when supplies became exhausted and the industry switched to the more plentiful western cedar varieties. Eastern Red Cedar is a dependable choice for landscaping and can be used on farms as a windbreak or in urban settings as privacy hedges.
The Eastern Red Cedar berries are an underappreciated food. Although the Eastern Red Cedar is not endangered, it isn’t easy to find the berries in abundance due to their botanical qualities. In ideal growing conditions, the berry flower occurs in the first year, the cone turns green in the second year, and blue when ready for harvest in the third year.
Eastern Red Cedar berries are related to common juniper berries but are superior in flavor. The berries are mild without the turpentine notes and bitterness of common juniper. They are almost sweet with a woodsy/pine flavor. Whole berries should be kept in an airtight container and placed in a dry, cool spot away from direct sunlight. The berries can be eaten dried, fresh, chopped or powdered. These berries can be somewhat difficult to find, but you should look for places where the environment is clean. Organic farms can be good foraging locations, however you should be sure to ask permission from the landowner before harvesting the berries.
Note: pregnant women should avoid ingesting juniper berries.
Or check out some additional readings
“Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in your Backyard or Farmers Market” by Tama Matsuoka Wong “Wild Plants I have known and Eaten” by Russ Cohen United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Arbor Day Foundation National Gardening Association