Wild Ideas: Pollen on the way?

Pollen season is almost upon us and, thanks to the relatively warm winter, may arrive sooner than expected. The culprits spewing what, for some of us, is an annoying allergen are members of the juniper family. This is the only tree pollen I seem to be allergic to, and it creeps up on me most years, being the last thing on my mind when I stare out at the bare winter landscape.


Only three juniper species are native to Virginia. One, the common juniper (Juniperus communis), is indeed the most common juniper in the world. But the range of this cold-loving plant extends only down to just north of Rappahannock County, so not likely to be a problem for me at home. Another juniper, the Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), grows only in the southeast coastal area of Virginia, so also not a problem.

The junipers that do cause problems are the nonnative ones used extensively for landscaping, as in the Fairfax County suburbs I grew up in, and the third native one, eastern redcedar (Juniperus  virginiana). Ubiquitous throughout Virginia, it is one of the first woody plants to take hold in disturbed open land, such as fallow pastures, forest and road edges, and medians. I noticed a bumper crop in the median of Rt. 211 just west of Warrenton as I was driving the other day.

Rather than having flowers that produce pollen, the eastern redcedar has tiny cones. The female cone is only about a quarter inch long, at most, with a waxy, bluish outer coating that makes it resemble a berry. The male cone, which holds the pollen, is about half the size of the female’s. Males release their pollen into wind, which carries it to females, starting in mid- to late February. In relatively warm winters, such as this year’s (so far), they can begin sooner. Also carried on the wind during mild weather is leaf mold, mixing in to give me a double shot of allergens.

While I dread red cedar pollen season, enduring it is eased by knowing its “berries” give gin its characteristic flavor, and I do like martinis, and gin and tonics. And, as the Virginia Department of Forestry’s book “Common Native Trees of Virginia” notes, the red cedar berries are also a favorite food of many birds, including waxwings and bobwhite quail, and its dense foliage provides excellent roosting and nesting cover for birds. The foliage also serves as emergency winter food for deer.