It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of Christmas trees. Compared with nonnative Douglas or Fraser firs or Colorado blue spruces, it gets absolutely no respect. Its branches are too close together, its needles too prickly, and its stature too scrawny. You never see it at Christmas tree farms or lots. And yet it is, to my mind, the most authentic of Christmas trees — and the one that is most identified with Rappahannock County.
Of the Virginia cedar, I sing. Formally called the Juniperus virginiana, it’s also known as the eastern redcedar, red cedar, eastern juniper, red juniper, pencil cedar or aromatic cedar. The Native American name means “redwood.” European settlers first took note of it on Roanoke Island, in 1564, and it became prized — because of its resistance to insects and weather — by colonists for building furniture, rail fences and log cabins.
But nowadays it’s often considered a weed tree because it is so hardy and prolific. In ecological succession, it is termed a “pioneer invader” — meaning it is one of the first trees to repopulate cleared, eroded or otherwise damaged land. Because it is resistant to extremes of drought, heat and cold and can grow well in all types of soil (rocky, sandy, clay), it is a Darwinian survivor, often living for hundreds of years.
In Rappahannock County, cedars are everywhere — along fence lines, in any uncut field, at woodland’s edge — like Christmas ornaments, decorating winter’s dull brown landscape. To single out one and then cut it down has been a tradition in my family going back to my own childhood. That Virginia cedar is not explicitly bred as a Christmas tree and is native to the land on which we live — these two facts alone give the tree special meaning. But, as my children got older and became painfully conscious of what their peers thought, they grew embarrassed of what they called our “Charlie Brown Christmas tree.”
I’m not sure when their attitude changed, but I can’t help but notice that their own children, my grandchildren, are experiencing their very first Christmases underneath Virginia cedars harvested in Rappahannock.