Have you ever noticed these blue-purple berries on cedar trees (also known as Ashe junipers) around the park? Although small, they play a huge role in the park’s ecosystem and greater surrounding area.
Phil Hardberger Park’s Park Naturalist, Jewell Cozort, states that Ashe junipers are dioecious, meaning separate male and female trees.
The male cedar trees produce tiny flowers with pollen between December and February, which is why many peoples’ cedar allergies are strongest in the winter. This is followed by females producing berries from February until November, with ripening and dispersal of the berries and seeds within them occurring between November and April.
The timeframes for each of these phases is very broad because each tree has a unique peak berry production and seed germination time, providing a year-round food supply for animals when other berries and fruit are sparse.
Birds, insects, raccoons, coyotes, jackrabbits, white-tailed deer, gray foxes and ringtail cats (all native species) forage on these berries. The digestion of the berries is beneficial to the cedar trees as well, as the seeds are often left intact and ready to germinate in animal feces.
The growth of cedar trees and the production of these berries is strongly dependent on the amount of rainfall the tree receives, meaning dry periods in even the most fertile soils result in much lower berry production.
Native Americans used the berries of cedar trees for some meals as a spice, but here in Hardberger Park it is recommended that you don’t eat any. They have a very bitter taste, can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea, and potentially have traces of toxins on their surface from vehicle exhaust produced in the surrounding city.
Phil Hardberger Park’s Education Coordinator, Susan Campbell, recommends no fruit or plants should be eaten in any park as some are poisonous to humans and should be left for the wildlife.