AUSTIN (KXAN) — Ashe juniper trees are causing a lot of suffering for Central Texans with allergies this winter. We’ve had multiple days so far this season where the “cedar” count has neared record-breaking levels.
If you’ve lived in the area for any stretch, you’ve probably dealt with or known someone who hates this time of year and the dreaded “cedar fever.” But one thing has probably confused you — why is it called that when it’s caused by a juniper tree?
Elizabeth McGreevy is an ecological planner who literally wrote the book on the Central Texas ashe juniper trees, also known as mountain cedar.
“It’s kind of the story of the Hill Country seen through the eyes of mountain cedar,” McGreevy said of her book, Wanted! Mountain Cedars Dead and Alive.
McGreevy said early Texas pioneers first called ashe juniper trees “cedar” because of its similarities to Eastern red cedar, but neither tree is truly a cedar tree. “When the Europeans first came here (to the New World) and they encountered our Eastern red cedar, they called it cedar because of its aroma.”
Juniper trees smell very similar to true cedar trees, which can be found throughout Asia and Europe, but that is where the similarities end.
The differences between cedar and juniper trees
“True cedars have needles,” McGreevy said, while juniper leaves have scales on them. “They’re like little tiny, overlapping scales.”
True cedars also have small wooden cones, while female juniper trees have berries. Those same berries are actually used to make gin.
“Deer love them,” McGreevy said. “Deer love to get intoxicated on them actually. Berries will fall down, they’ll start to ferment and the deer eat them. They just hang out and you can walk right up to the deer slap them on the butt.”
Why do we call junipers ‘cedar?’
The debate over what to call junipers has lasted more than a century.
“At one point they thought, ‘it’s a juniper,’ then they weren’t sure. They thought it might be a cypress. And so it kept flip-flopping back and forth and they continued to call it mountain cedar.”
McGreevy said that the tree was finally formally identified as ashe juniper in 1932.
Why do we still call it cedar then?
“By then, the name mountain cedar (had) become part of our culture.” McGreevy said.
Many things in our area are still named after cedar, while sadly, juniper hasn’t really caught on. “It’s just a part of our vernacular culture as a word.”
If you’re interested in McGreevy’s book, you can find it at Barnes and Noble or at Austin’s Reverie Books.