I was probably only six or seven years old when I went on my first hunting trip. Dad and I were hunting a Christmas tree. I carried the axe. A Christmas tree at our home was always a cedar tree, and not just any cedar tree. It had to be just the right height, the right girth and the right color. Dad always took his shotgun and while we hunted the perfect Christmas tree we also hunted for rabbits and squirrels and quail and ducks, none of which had to be perfect, just within range.
There is nothing more typical of the Ozarks where I grew up than the old fields of broam sedge, blackberry brambles and sumac thickets, dotted with cedars, most of them too large or too small for Christmas trees. Here on Lightnin’ Ridge I have a thicket of cedars below my pond and they grow so closely none are shaped like a Christmas tree. They will stay there because they are a thick windbreak and hiding place for all kinds of birds, and quail and rabbits… valuable protection from predators and winter blasts.
Actually the tree we call a red cedar, is not a cedar at all, it is a juniper. It can grow 50 feet tall and two and a half feet in diameter when the soil is good, or it can sprout from the thinnest soil in a limestone glade and survive forever with the flimsiest foothold.
One old-timer in Arkansas told me of an era before the great depression when the Buffalo and White rivers were filled with floating cedar logs, miles of them, on their way to become pencils and cedar chests.
The oil in the cedar is a natural insect repellent of course, the fragrance of it driving away moths and other insects, therefore, explaining the popularity of cedar chests.
The cedar is tough and it is hardy and it had survived despite all the efforts to eradicate it completely. It has its drawbacks, being the alternate host to a blight that affects apple trees. If you have an apple orchard, the last thing you want nearby is a cedar thicket. Wild birds ensure its survival by eating the berries and passing the seeds.
Remaining on the tree through the winter, those berries are emergency food for quail, turkey, doves, grey squirrels, and rabbits when deep snow or ice makes other food unavailable. Deer browse on the scale-like leaves, and early nesting doves nest inside protective evergreen branches from March thru September. The red cedar offers protection and security for small creatures; like that manger in Bethlehem did, more than 2,000 years ago. And that makes the cedar even more appropriate as the true Christmas tree.
It is said that Indians dried and ground cedar berries, then used them to make a cake-like food. They also roasted and ground them to produce a hot, coffee-like drink. An old camper’s recipe I found in an outdoor magazine from 1915 gave this recipe for juniper tea… “A dozen young berryless sprigs to be added to a quart of cold water; bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer for 10 minutes, remove from fire and cool for 10 minutes, then strain and drink… High in vitamin C, juniper tea produces a pleasant tasting hot drink.” I’m not recommending juniper tea, since I’ve never tried it, and may never. But if you do try it, let me know how it tastes.
It is hard for me to accept that a whole generation of folks now go onto city lots and buy Christmas trees, a large number of them spruce or pine from other states. And they pay for them! They will spend enough on some trucked-in, bound-up tree to buy two or three boxes of shotgun shells, and then throw the thing away in less than a month. What the heck has this world come to?!!
With a local cedar tree, our whole house smells like Christmas. That’s because cedar trees smell like Christmas more than anything else, and if it isn’t that way at your place, you are not keeping up with tradition. Cedar trees, baked cookies and a good dog… those are the smells of an Ozark country Christmas.
And the most beautifully shaped Christmas trees in the whole world are found along our highways, millions of cedars from 4 feet to 20 feet tall, so perfectly shaped that it looks like they were grown just for that purpose. They are full and green and teardrop shaped, the best you can find for a Christmas tree because of the environment they grow in with full light with no competition from nearby trees. If the highway department, always wanting more money, could harvest these perfectly-shaped cedar Christmas trees and set up a way for private sales on a percentage basis, they could make millions and therefore fill in all the chuck-holes and solve the states financial deficits at the same time.
But it might be too difficult for a state agency to figure out how to make that work. I could do it for them if they would ask. If my dad and I could have found cedars like that when I was a boy, we wouldn’t have had to hunt all afternoon. And our home never had a cedar tree as perfect as those.
You might send this article to the highway department headquarters and ask them why they can spend thousands cleaning the right-of-way on miles and miles of highways, a practice with no value to the public in any way, while a million perfect Christmas trees are there for the taking and selling. Why can one be done and the other cannot.
HALF WAY DONE – the highway department can’t cut cedars along highways to sell or give away for Christmas trees.
BUT HERE IS WHAT THEY CAN DO…. SO IMPORTANT FOR US ALL.