Trees are highly regarded in this region of the Northern Plains. Yankton proudly introduces travelers to a “Tree City USA” with signage at the edge of town. But Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) and the earliest photos before statehood portray the land as a sea of waving grasses, except for trees in river valleys and along feeder creeks.
With a lot of human intervention, trees are more prominent on the plains today. They are treasured as protection from harsh winds, sunshade, building wood, firewood, and fruit, and for their natural beauty.
An exception is an Eastern redcedar, a medium evergreen juniper tree familiar from the Atlantic shore to eastern South Dakota.
“Eastern redcedar trees are probably despised as much as prized,” according to Dr. John Ball, Professor of Forestry at South Dakota State University, in his Trees! Field Guide.
They are widely planted as reliable, hardy, long-lived, windbreak trees that can survive in cold, heat, and arid conditions and alkaline soil. Forest fires limited their distribution in the past. Eastern redcedar burns readily, but with fewer fires, birds deposit the prolific seeds under deciduous trees and in other unwanted places, such as pastures.
The cedars compete well with other plants for water. Groves of the cedars crowd out native plants and other trees with dense shade. Management to maintain or reduce Eastern redcedars includes controlled burns, cutting young trees, and chemicals.
In the mid photo, this grove of Eastern redcedars is home, food source, and protection to local turkeys and other birds, whitetail deer, and small mammal wildlife such as rabbits and snakes. Migrating Cedar Waxwings flock to the tops of the trees to feed where berries remain.
Evergreen boughs of Eastern redcedars may be used in holiday decoration indoors and out. Fragrance from the fresh-cut greenery adds to the dining table. In this window box, the gray/green foliage color remains until removed in late winter.
Like many plants that become part of the local ecology, Eastern redcedars can be beneficial and problematic. For wildlife this drought winter, the trees are appreciated.
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