Two cedars are common in West Michigan but neither is actually considered a true cedar (Cedrus sp.). The true cedars do not grow naturally in North America. Perhaps the best-known true cedar is the over harvested Cedar of Lebanon whose removal caused flooding and other environmental problems.
Locally two cedars grow in different habitats filling different nature niches.
The White Cedar, also known as Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), is a wetland species, for which the town of Cedar Springs gains its name. In our area, it is most common in cold swamps or along streams, where moving water prevents acidic stagnant conditions. Cedars require neutral to basic nutrient rich soil conditions, with a pH of 7 or greater. This is more important than keeping their feet (roots) wet.
When crossing Mackinac Bridge northward, we are greeted in the Upper Peninsula with White Cedars along I-75, growing on high ground composed of high pH soil covering dolomitic limestone. The cedars give me the feeling that I am entering the North Country. The Grand Rapids area of West Michigan, eastward across Michigan, is nearing the southern limit of the tree’s abundance. White Cedars are found farther south but large native stands primarily end their southward range here. They also hug the cooler climate along Lake Michigan and have found growing conditions suitable to southern Michigan.
In good habitat, the trees grow densely. Roots are shallow and spreading, allowing them to receive oxygen easily. If deprived of oxygen, they will not thrive. Moving water in swamps brings a fresh supply of nutrients annually, during spring snowmelts and high water.
The shallow roots result in trees being toppled easily by strong winds. I have been in Cedar swamps with fallen trees piled ten feet thick. Many times White Cedars grow in thick, pure stands following fire. Deer feed heavily on cedars and depend on mature trees, where they yard together for survival in harsh dangerous winter conditions.
Cedars’ dense growth and evergreen flattened branches hold snow, preventing it from falling to the ground. Shallow snow depth on the ground allows easier deer movement. Predators find it more difficult to capture and kill deer in such conditions. When deer leave the safety of cedar swamps into deep snow, they become vulnerable and even without the presence of predators deep snow requires increased energy expenditure.
Finding food buried in snow is difficult. Along Cedar and Little Cedar Creeks, Cedar trees are no longer abundant. When humans settled here, the native habitats were greatly altered. It is interesting to note that many roads and towns are named for species once abundant but were removed by human development. Now the plant and animal names dominate communities more than the species themselves.
One can gauge deer abundance by how heavily Cedars are browsed. When deer populations are excessively high, Cedars are browsed as high as deer can reach, when standing on their hind legs. Where deer populations have not exceeded the carrying capacity of food, water, and shelter, Cedar branches can be found growing closer to the ground. Lower green branches have become rare in much of Michigan.
The Red Cedar is actually a juniper (Juniperus virginiana) growing on high dry ground. It is a southern tree that found its way into mid Michigan. Prior to logging and European farmer settlement, the Red Cedar was uncommon here. Clearing of forests allowed this shade intolerant species to expand its range northward on well-drained calcareous soils. When driving south in winter, the Red Cedars seem to dominate highway shoulders where its evergreen branches are apparent during the cold season.
Its branches are very prickly to the touch, unlike the softer feel of White Cedars. It is drought resistant, slow growing and might live a few hundred years if not harvested. Its wood is also decay resistant, used for fence posts, cedar chests, and closet linings like that of White Cedar, for which Cedar Springs was named. Wood from both repel insects, fungi, and provide a pleasant aroma.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.