Wild Ideas: Misery rides the wind

Last week I woke up feeling like I was coming down with a virus — swollen sinuses, achy all over, weak in the legs, foggy brain and generally feeling lousy — just when I thought I’d make it through this miserable winter without getting sick. Then I thought about the date, Feb. 13, and realized it probably wasn’t a virus that was making me feel “punk,” as my dad used to put it. Instead, despite several inches of snow still remaining on the ground, the pollen season had started.

Eastern redcedars kick off Rappahannock’s tree-pollen season in February. This young, bushy tree is in the author’s yard. The small, overlapping leaves on young trees are more pointed than the ones of mature redcedars.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Eastern redcedars kick off Rappahannock’s tree-pollen season in February. This young, bushy tree is in the author’s yard. The small, overlapping leaves on young trees are more pointed than the ones of mature redcedars.

For years when I was a kid, it seemed I got a virus every February that lasted for weeks. As I discovered much later in my life, a tree, not a virus, was to blame. The culprit, the eastern redcedar, is the only plant pollen I’m allergic to, as far as I know. Later in the spring, when yellow pollen of other trees covers ponds and cars, I’m fine.

As with many trees, the European colonists misidentified the eastern redcedar. Actually a juniper, not a cedar, in the Cupressaceae family of conifers, its scientific name is Juniperus virginiana. Also known as eastern red cedar, cedar tree, juniper, savin, evergreen, cedar apple and Virginia red cedar, on any warm day in February, particularly when there is a nice breeze, this hardy tree begins its reproductive cycle while other plants are still slumbering. In the suburbs where I grew up, contractors often included various other species of junipers as low-maintenance “foundation plantings,” which contributed to my misery this time of year.

I wondered why I hadn’t gotten a pollen email alert from Weather.com in my email yet, so I checked the site and realized I’d turned off the alert when the pollen season ended last year. I turned it back on and also checked the pollen index for Sperryville while I was on the website. Sure enough, pollen counts were climbing as the temperatures were rising.

I searched online and found another site, Pollen.com, which has pollen alerts and maps, but also has a lot of information about the pollen producers. That site describes redcedar as a “severe allergen.” I can attest to that. The alerts from the two sites tend to vary slightly, so I signed up for one at Pollen.com, too.

Redcedars have reddish bark and start as scruffy bushes with tiny, overlapping needles that are quite sharp. As they mature into trees, the needles get flatter and more rounded at the tip. While some redcedars growing in full sun will look quite elegant as mature trees, with a nice oval shape, they can also have a ragged outline and untidy appearance. As they age, some of the foliage dies, leaving unsightly brown patches that do not improve their appearance.

Despite its general lack of elegance and its propensity for unloading a lot of pollen at once, it is also an important part of the succession from field to forest. One of the earliest trees to colonize open fields, the redcedar does quite well in pretty much any open area and in a variety of soils. According to the USDA Plants Database, they and other junipers are also “important to wildlife throughout the country.”

The “flowers” of the redcedar are just spiky little protuberances, and are hard to spot. As with other junipers, the females produce pretty blue-black berries, which are their “chief attraction to wildlife,” according to the USDA. Cedar waxwings are among the principal consumers of the berries, and many other species of birds and mammals make these fruits an important part of their diet.

The male redcedar produces cones, similar to pine cones but very tiny, at the ends of their branches. If you shake the branches, a cloud of pollen is released — not something I’m likely to try.

The eastern redcedar also provides nesting sites for many species of songbirds, including chipping sparrows, robins, song sparrows and mockingbirds, says the USDA. The foliage serves as dense, protective cover in which juncos, myrtle warblers, sparrows of various kinds and other birds roost, which is especially important in winter, when most trees and bushes are bare.

Skunk cabbage is blooming on schedule in Rappahannock’s wetlands. Like many early-blooming plants, the flowers of this plant emerge before its leaves do.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Skunk cabbage is blooming on schedule in Rappahannock’s wetlands. Like many early-blooming plants, the flowers of this plant emerge before its leaves do.

Long valued by humans as well, the redcedar was used by Native Americans for many purposes, according to the USDA: Its durable wood to make lance shafts, bows and flutes; its aromatic boughs for bedding; its bark for woven mats used for a variety of purposes; and different parts of the plant were used to treat numerous maladies. When the European colonists arrived, they embraced some of these uses and included the plant in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as far back as the early 19th  century.

We have only one cedar here on the property where I live — on the forest edge near my house. I decided to check its gender but couldn’t find cones or berries, but a lot of the branches looked as if the ends had been nibbled off. Few plants up here bore fruit this year, and anything that could be eaten by wildlife pretty much had been by this point. In any case, I decided I couldn’t blame this little tree for my current misery; likely the pollen is coming from much further away, riding the wind.

More signs that spring is on the way

Harbingers of spring — other than eastern redcedars releasing their pollen — are starting to appear. Skunk cabbage, one of the first herbaceous plants to emerge after winter, is on track. I checked out the wetland down by the pond, and a few of the bizarre-looking blooms were poking up out of the mud. Like many early-blooming plants, its blossoms appear before its leaves do.

With the bitter temperatures this year, wood frogs, the earliest-breeding amphibians in our area, are only now emerging. This one was photographed near White Oak Canyon in Madison County.David Cox
With the bitter temperatures this year, wood frogs, the earliest-breeding amphibians in our area, are only now emerging. This one was photographed near White Oak Canyon in Madison County.

The earliest amphibian to start breeding in Virginia, the wood frog (see my Feb. 10, 2011, and March 14, 2013, columns), can start breeding as early as January during relatively brief warm spells. This January didn’t offer those conditions, but wood frogs started appearing in the longer warm stretches recently. They are yet to begin their chorus of clacking mating calls at some of their usual locations, according to reports I’m getting.

Another early breeder is the American woodcock. While the male that performed his courtship displays on my driveway last year (Feb. 24, 2011 column) has yet to make an appearance, I’ve heard from my contacts that males in other parts of the county are starting their courting, with beeping calls and helicopter-like flight display.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”