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Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a very common native plant in Eastern North America. It is not a true cedar but is a juniper. There are a number of Junipers with non-toxic aromatic berries including Eastern Red Cedar, but there are also a few significantly toxic ones as well. The toxic ones are difficult to distinguish from the non-toxic ones, but this article will give some good ways to make the distinction. Eastern red cedar berries are a traditional Native American flavoring and medicine.
Edibility – Cedar Berries and Foliage
Eastern red cedar berries and other non-toxic junipers have been used in a number of ways. Native Americans often added juniper berries to food dishes and grains like flour for a hint of flavor. Deer and other meat was often cooked with Juniper berries. They were prepared different ways by different tribes but some of the preparation methods include drying, soaking, mashing, or just eating them raw. Juniper berries and young twigs were also made into a medicinal tea by Native American Tribes. Eastern Red Cedar is slightly less aromatic than some other junipers but it can still be used in much the same way. Another thing worth noting is that the berries take 3 years to mature and are a dark blue when finally ready to pick.
The berries of Eastern Red Cedar have a number of medicinal uses. A Tea made from the berries has been commonly used for the treatment of coughs and colds, and to expel intestinal worms. Chewing the berries may help with mouth soars. External application may help with infections and warts due to the plants antiseptic properties. Like so many other unknown edibles, Eastern Red Cedar also has a cancer fighting compound called podophyllotoxin.
Eastern Red Cedar is considered a non-toxic species of Juniper, though it does contain some level of toxins. Partaking of extremely large amounts of the plant or consuming its essential oil could lead to acute poisoning, although rare, which might include abortion, vomiting convulsions or death. Most Juniper species are not significantly toxic, and no Native American species are.
There are Southern European species of significantly toxic junipers including Juniperus sabina and Juniperus oxycedrus. They are very difficult to tell apart from non-toxic Junipers especially since they hybridize with them, so to play it safe there is one rule to follow. All upright tree-form Junipers are non-toxic, that includes Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Southern Red Cedar(Juniperus silicicola), and Rocky Mountain Juniper(Juniperus scopulorum), as well as others. It is worth noting that the vast majority of shrub-form Junipers are non-toxic but they are difficult to distinguish from the toxic ones so should be avoided unless positive identification can be made.
Key ID Features
One way to identify junipers from other evergreens is to notice the distinct difference between the 2 types of foliage that are often present on the same tree. There is a longer sharp and pointed foliage and there is a very short scale-like rounded foliage. These 2 distinct types of foliage are also present on some similar looking plants like those in the Chamaecyparis genus.
The overall shape of Eastern Red Cedar is another good way to distinguish it from other junipers and evergreens. It is known for its very uniform upright shape, and it gets taller than many other juniper species. The name Red Cedar comes from the reddish heartwood which is noticeable when the trunk or branch is cut. Eastern red cedar berries look very similar to other juniper berries and are not a good identification feature.
Eastern Red Cedar is a common tree in New England and other parts of the Eastern United States. Eastern red cedar berries and foliage be used to add a natural flavor to meat and grain dishes. Knowing where the nearest Eastern Red Cedar is could also help if you have a cough or cold. Native Americans used this plant for a number of things, and realizing its potential will enrich our foraging skills
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