Our grown children were scattered hither and yon this Christmas, so Rose and I downsized Yuletide with a raggedy Eastern red cedar, instead of a sculpted Fraser fir. Meanwhile, I stayed merry and bright in a larger sense. I made the rounds in a Santa suit leavened with a puffy pillow.

We dug a cedar (Juniperus virginiana)from our Salvisa farm. It had unmistakable charm—even if I was the only one who thought so. There were obvious advantages to our little tree. It was a blessing to be able to lean over and place the angel on top of a three-foot tree instead of climbing a rickety stepladder to crown the angel on an eight-foot store-bought tree. We also avoided the fuss and drama of untangling fifteen miles of lights and replacing a thousand blown bulbs. None of that was Santa’s business, anyway. He had children waiting for his seasonal meet and greet.

Santa passed up the customary team of reindeer for a get-around ride in an all-electric Chevy Bolt. The Bolt’s range, on a full charge, is only 200 miles and change. Santa drove back and forth between Louisville and Salvisa.

But Santa had a hard time keeping his eyes on the road. The 50-mile drive passes thousands of Eastern red cedars as common as winter mud and as variable as snowflakes. There were fat ones, short ones, some pencil-thin, and all kinds in between.

My preferred Christmas tree has long been a Fraser fir grown on tree farms in the high mountains of North Carolina. The Fraser Fir is often called the Cadillac of Christmas trees. These cultivated trees are trimmed tighter than a Victorian corset, and the forest-scented, dark green needles grow on limbs strong enough to hang an anvil.

Cedars at Berry Hill. Frankfort, Kentucky

Still, I’ve grown partial to the red cedar. It’s more like the Chevy Corvair of Christmas Trees. (I once owned a used 1965 Corvair and loved the car Ralph Nader claimed was “unsafe to Drive at Any Speed.” I drove the wheels off the rust bucket and sold it for $185, ten dollars more than the purchase price.)

Like the Corvair, the Eastern red cedar never really caught on. Nowhere, in gardens, was the cedar comparable to its  juniper counterparts. But why was the North American Eastern Red Cedar so scarce in landscapes? It’s hard to fathom, though it probably has some connection to the human obsession with symmetry, the rage for order. 

North American range of Juniperus virginiana. USDA image.

Mike Dirr, the legendary woody plants expert, and former University of Georgia horticulture teacher, described the species as “a tough, irrepressible green soldier that can prosper where few plants can even survive.”

“…irrepressible green soldiers that can prosper where few plants can even survive.” Louisville, Kentucky.

The late J.C. Raulston, a hugely popular teacher at North Carolina State University, once had a trick final exam question for his graduate level course, Physiology of Landscape Plants. ‘”Name a specific tree which meets the following requirements for a given landscape — can be grown from USDA Hardiness Zone 2 through 9, drought tolerant, tolerant of high or low pH soils whether loose and gravely or compacted, minimal pest problems, salt and wind tolerant for beach conditions, evergreen, attractive fruit, long lived, tolerates high winds and has a solid root system to prevent “wind throw,” propagates easily, is easy to nursery transplant and establish in the landscape, and is rapid growing when young.”’ 

Cedar selections, planted by Louisville tree activist Mike Hayman, on Cedar Hill in Seneca Park.

A few students, out of frustration, took a wild guess: a plastic plant, they thought. Raulston answered: “Not correct as it does not grow rapidly when young!” These bright kids hadn’t given much thought to Eastern red cedars. But how could they miss the beauty of this native evergreen and its attendant winter show-offs— the robins, cardinals and cedar waxwings feeding on cedar berries?

Black Friday, Internet Monday and the holidays were here and, then, gone. 

The cedar berries on the farm are being picked clean.

I re-planted the little cedar tree on the farm and Santa took his suit to the dry cleaners.