Although a good chunk of the edge of New York Harbor is man-made and over-developed, where patches of shoreline and coastal woodland meet you are sure to find this narrowly conical evergreen growing. Perhaps rising out of sandy soils alongside poison ivy or long stem grasses.
Easter red cedar is the most common conifer that grows around New York Harbor. There is not much green now, but the needlelike, flat shiny leaves radiate with pleasure among the pale, dim and dusky winter landscape. The leaves and branches provide a vital source of shelter for many birds when the weather gets unfriendly, wild and windy.
It’s a hardy tree that can grow just about anywhere around the metropolitan area from infertile disturbed soils inland to dry sandy soils of tidal salt marshes along the coast. Eastern red cedar is a pioneer species, meaning it's among the first trees to populate and colonize an open area. Prickly, juvenile foliage jutting out from shale and limestone soils.
Pick a few needlelike leaves and crush them in your hands. Soon you will be awarded with a pleasant fragrant smell that has been highly prized for ages by people as aromatic incense. Cedar trees were once used to make fences in old New York. The wood was highly prized due to its endurance from rot, rain and snow. When the trees became scarce from overharvesting then the cedar fence posts were yanked out and sold to make pencils. Perfect lightweight pencils that could be sharpened easily.
And let’s not forget about the tree’s fruit. Female cedars create small globular waxy, berry-like cones, which start out pale-green and turn dark blue, like a blueberry, when they ripen in October or November.
The berries provide a crucial source of food for many birds through the long cold days of winter. When not much else is available you can see a long list of birds plucking cedar berries from branches including robins, mockingbirds, catbirds, blue jays, and warblers. In fact, cedar waxwings get their name from a fondness for the fruit of cedar trees.
In January and February, male cedars are shedding pollen. They are one of the first trees to flower every year. Soon seeds will be produced to create the next generation of Eastern red cedars to grow. And grow they can, reaching heights in some cases of 65 feet, but more commonly found growing 30 to 40 feet tall. The trees are also long-lived and can endure in the right conditions for more than three hundred years. Some of the mature cedars we see now around New York Harbor were seedlings during the early 1700s. Imagine the stories one tree could tell.