A dead or dieing cedar tree is very obvious in the summer. The orange-red of freshly dried cedar needles is like flame against the surrounding background of green. Death is a natural event, but it always gives me an uneasy feeling if I don’t know the reason behind the death.
It seems that there is a disease, fungus or insect poised to decimate just about every tree in the forest. I sometimes feel that Eastern Red Cedar might be the only tree left at Blue Jay Barrens if all of the threats to trees suddenly converged here. This present situation seems slightly more ominous because there seems to be a progression of death occurring. Trees that have died earlier have already lost their needles. Next to them is a newly dead tree along with a tree that is showing problems on selected branches.
The most common cause of cedar death in this area is weather related stress combined with poor growing conditions. Some trees are just not able to develop a root system that is capable of sustaining the tree. This most commonly occurs with seedling sized trees, but rapidly growing medium sized trees are also susceptible. Death normally occurs in the winter following a stressful growing season. It can take a considerable amount of time for a dead cedar to lose its green color, so it’s usually not until late spring that you notice the dead trees.
The needles don’t show any signs of deformity or disease. Excessive heat can kill a cedar without damaging the needles. The most common natural form of such heat is a lightning strike. I’ve been lucky enough over the years to witness two lightning strikes that resulted in cedar death. Lightning strikes can kill the entire tree or just singe the needles on one side.
What I’ve not seen is any physical damage from lightning strikes. Deciduous trees and pines usually show a nice scar down the length of the trunk as a result of a strike. This doesn’t seem to be the case with cedars.
Nearby trees are still green and healthy. I don’t believe the cedar population is in any danger. The dead trees will allow for expansion of the prairie, so their deaths do have some benefits. I just wish I could be certain of what happened.