This column first appeared in The Environmentor December 2008.

Folktale: Why some plants became evergreen

Some Cherokee traditions say that when the plants and the trees were first created, they were given a challenge: to stay awake for seven days and seven nights. The first day and night were easy, all of the plants and trees stayed wide awake. They managed the second night too. By the third night, however, many of the smaller plants and some of the trees were dropping off. Who could stay awake for seven days and seven nights? At dawn of the eighth day, only the cedar, the pine, the spruce, and fir, the hemlock, the holly, and the laurel remained awake. "You have endured," a voice said, "and you shall receive a gift. All of the other plants and trees will lose their leaves and sleep the winter long, but you shall never lose your leaves. You will provide a shelter to the birds during the harshest winds, and you will remind the people that even during the darkest times something remains. You shall be evergreen."

Why -> HOW

The legend explains that the ability to keep green leaves through the winter was a reward for meeting the challenge of staying awake. Botanists say it's a survival strategy for meeting the challenge of desiccation.

Winter's drying winds come when soil moisture is often locked up as ice. Deciduous (leaf-dropping) plants avoid lethal water loss by shedding their leaves. Evergreens waterproof their leaves with thick waxy coats. Some also position their stomata (air exchange portholes) inside the leaf tissue rather than on the surface where wind could whisk away moisture. Thus protected, evergreens can keep their leaves through the winter. Some species keep them for years! Holding onto their leaves longer also helps evergreens retain mineral nutrients, an advantage when growing on poor soil.

Fact-tale: How a native evergreen became a menace

In Oklahoma, the most common evergreen on our winter-tanned landscape is Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Some disused pastures are almost a clear stand of "redcedar"! But it was once extremely rare here. In fact, around 1900 when humans had nearly exterminated the bison herds, we had also nearly wiped out the redcedar from the prairie.

Cowboys on leased Indian land in the Cherokee Strip reported seeing only large redcedar stumps but no live trees. Trespassing Kansas farmers may have cut them all for fence posts to use with that newfangled barbed wire. Indeed the red heartwood, resisting termites and wood rot, makes excellent fence posts. 1898 pioneers near Alva earned a living cutting redcedar posts, which grew only on steep "gyp" rock hillsides, where the periodic range fires found scant fuel to reach the saplings.

During the "Dirty Thirties," government agents advocated planting shelter-belts to break the winds which were stealing our topsoil. Redcedars played an important part in these belts, their evergreen branches blocking wind clear to the ground. In the 40's and 50's, farmers started planting them on their own. Talk to old timers to hear tales about climbing those ladder-like branches and playing in that summer shade, free of under story weeds. Birds enjoyed the blue "berries" (really a fleshy cone); baby trees sprang up along fence lines and under power lines. A shapely redcedar was the only Christmas tree many rural families could afford.

But by the 1970's, redcedars were beginning to be a menace to ranchers. Deer might browse them; cattle won't. Redcedars shaded out the valuable range grasses and inhibited germination of other species' seeds (allelopathy). Cattlemen complained of springs and ponds running dry when too many redcedars infested the range.

How to get rid of them? In the old days, periodic prairie fires burned off the saplings: redcedars thrived only on bare gravely slopes. As settlements encroached on the prairie, however, fires were suppressed allowing redcedars to spread and grow huge. Now a fire is doubly dangerous, because the oily needles explode into a fountain of sparks on the wind.

But that oil, and the fragrant rot- and insect-resistant wood, are enticing entrepreneurs to make constructive use of this "menace." Craftsmen make the wood into furniture and boxes. The shavings become bug-repellant bedding for pets. Redcedar oil also makes a spray which repells ticks chiggers and mosquitoes. Some ranchers chainsaw the trees, then pay the craftsmen to haul them away.

And if you know a rancher, you may be welcome to cut your own Territorial Traditions Christmas tree. Just be sure to put your thirsty redcedar in a stand whose water reservoir can be refilled at least once a day.

  1. 1880 Cherokee Outlet Cowboy: Recollections of Laban S. Records, University of Oklahoma Press

See also the Page 1 article in The Environmentor