The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


December 7, 2013

Christmas tree search provides other hunting opportunities

I was probably only 6 or 7 years old when I went on my first hunting trip back in the 1950s.

I carried the ax. Dad took me with him on a search for a Christmas tree not far from our home in Texas County. A Christmas tree at our home was a cedar tree, and not just any cedar tree. It had to be just the right height, the right girth and the right color.

You didn’t find a Christmas tree just anywhere, you had to hunt for it. So in addition to the little belt ax, Dad always took his ‘97 Winchester pump-gun, and while we hunted the perfect Christmas tree, we also hunted for rabbits and squirrels and quail and ducks, none of which had to be perfect, just within range.

There is nothing more typical of the Ozarks where I grew up than the old fields of brome sedge, blackberry brambles and sumac thickets, dotted with cedars, most of them too large or too small for Christmas trees.

We always found rabbits while we were looking for a Christmas tree. We usually found a squirrel or two and a covey of quail. On farm ponds hidden deep within those overgrown fields, there were occasional wild mallards as well.

As years went on, we continued that tradition and I’d tag along carrying the ax and the game, whatever it turned out to be, and noticing that where there were cedars there was always an abundance of winter wildlife. After three or four hours, we’d usually find that just-right cedar not far from the pickup after all.

In the Ozarks, most country people value the cedar as a Christmas tree. But cedars have value far beyond dollars and cents. Actually the tree we call a red cedar, named “Baton Rouge” meaning “red stick” by the first French explorers in the Midwest, is not a cedar at all. It is a juniper. It can grow 50 feet tall and two feet in diameter when the soil is good, or it can sprout from the thinnest soil in a limestone glade and survive forever with the flimsiest foothold.

The red cedar was once a tree of considerable economic value. One old-timer in Arkansas told me of an era before the great depression when the Buffalo and White rivers were filled with floating cedar logs, miles of them on their way to become pencils and cedar chests.

The oil in the cedar is a natural insect repellent of course, the fragrance of it driving away moths, therefore explaining the popularity of cedar chests. But that heavy oil also is a natural wood preservative, and cedar posts are known to be long lasting and slow to decay.

The cedar is tough and it is hardy and it had survived despite all the efforts to eradicate it completely. It has its drawbacks, being the alternate host to a blight that affects apple trees. If you have an apple orchard, the last thing you want nearby is a cedar thicket. And scores of wild birds ensure its survival by eating the berries and passing the seeds.

The cedar feeds more than songbirds though. The female tree produces blue berries by the thousands. Remaining on the tree through the winter, those berries are emergency food for quail, turkey, doves, squirrels, rabbits, opossums and raccoons, when deep snow or ice makes other food unavailable.

Deer browse on the scale-like leaves, and early nesting doves nest inside protective evergreen branches. It is said that Indians dried and ground cedar berries, then used them to make a cake-like food. They also roasted and ground them to produce a coffee-like drink.

An old camper’s recipe I found in an outdoor magazine from 1915 gave this recipe for juniper tea: “A dozen young berryless sprigs to be added to a quart of cold water; bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer for 10 minutes, remove from fire and cool for 10 minutes, then strain and drink. ... High in vitamin C, juniper tea produces a pleasant tasting hot drink.”

I’m not recommending juniper tea, since I’ve never tried it, and may never. But if you do, and survive it, let me know how it tastes.

Landowners who like clean fence rows may despise the cedar because it is next to impossible to keep it out of a fence row, but the cedar is no villain for wildlife. The tree is a natural shelter for furred and feathered animals that find no other refuge when there are ice storms and winter winds that bear down from the north. It offers protection and security. Like that manger in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. And that makes the cedar even more appropriate as the true Christmas tree of the Ozarks.

While folks go to various places in the city to buy cedar trees, there are thousands of them in the woods. Most though are straggly and thin.

Along major highways in the Ozarks, like Missouri highway 13 north of Springfield and U.S. highway 65 north of Branson, beautiful, perfect Christmas trees grow by the thousands. They are full and green and tear-drop shaped. It is against the law of course to stop and cut one, but they are the best you can find for a Christmas tree because of the environment they grow in with full light.

It seems as if the state highway department could figure out some way to utilize them. Of course, many people owning land along those highway rights-of-way allow people to go across their fences and cut one. If my dad and I could have found cedars like that when I was a boy, we wouldn’t have had to hunt all afternoon. But then we would have missed some great rabbit and squirrel and quail hunting.

If you would like to get one or several of my outdoor books, or one of the outdoor and Ozark magazines we publish as a gift for anyone, we will send that with a card telling the recipient who sent it, with any message you wish to send.

Get the details from my executive secretary, Ms. Wiggins, who is busy wrapping the Dollar General gift cards she sends out every year. She’s pretty smart about it; she puts $2 each on about 20 of them, then puts $20 on only one. Then she shuffles them all up and gives them to her friends and family and there is a lot of excitement seeing who got the $20 card.

Myself, I just put $10 on all the ones I buy for gifts. But then I only have four to buy.

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