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The most hated man in Central Texas? Meet the namesake of the dreaded 'cedar fever' tree

William Willard Ashe
Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina Herbarium

Eight decades ago, forester and botanist William Willard Ashe forever became synonymous with the most hated (and debated) tree in Central Texas.

What we commonly and incorrectly call the cedar tree — the source of the dreaded and damned “cedar fever” — is actually the Ashe juniper. If you want to get technical about it, the scientific name is Juniperus ashei. The “Ashe” part of the name refers to Ashe the forester and botanist.

In the Botanical Gazette in 1930, botanist John Buchholz named the tree after Ashe, a North Carolina native. In the scientific journal, Buchholz declared that the tree represented a “distinct species” of Juniperus. This followed Ashe’s collection of a specimen of the tree in the spring of 1924 in Sylamore, Arkansas, about 140 miles southeast of Fayetteville.

 So, it turns out that the most despised tree in Central Texas was identified by a guy from North Carolina who discovered it in Arkansas. Well, at least he wasn't Texan.

Interestingly, the tree is far more prominent in Texas than in Arkansas or anywhere else; the Ashe juniper covers 8.6 million acres in the Texas Hill Country, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Which, in turn, translates to 8.6 million acres of pollen-pumping trees every year.

So, it turns out that the most despised tree in Central Texas was identified by a guy from North Carolina who discovered it in Arkansas. Well, maybe it’s best that the person most associated with the misery-inducing cedar tree wasn’t a Texan.

If you dig into Ashe’s background, it’s hard to hate the guy, despite his ties to the cedar tree.

By all accounts, Ashe was a good, respected man. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and other organizations cite Ashe as a “pioneer forester.” A nonprofit group called Wild South even attached Ashe’s name, along with that of President Teddy Roosevelt, to its annual conservation awards.

As noted by Wild South, Ashe was the first forester employed by the state of North Carolina and was a “major architect” of the conservation of forests in the eastern part of the country. He started working for the U.S. Forest Service when it was founded in 1905.

“In contrast to other foresters of his time, he understood the importance of biological diversity,” Wild South says.

A 2012 report written by researcher Rob Messick hailed Ashe as “a tireless collector and investigator” of plants, grasses and herbs from around the U.S.

According to the report, botanists have officially embraced 39 species of plants — including the Ashe juniper — that were chronicled by Ashe. As Messick pointed out, that’s a relatively small number compared with the tens of thousands of plant specimens he gathered during a four-decade career. The University of North Carolina Herbarium says it has cataloged more than 2,300 specimens collected by Ashe.

As if Ashe’s plant collection weren’t enough, he “was an amazingly prolific writer on a wide variety of subjects,” according to the herbarium. Topics of his publications included the terracing of farmland, the management of forests and the building of profit through “selective harvesting” of timber.

Ashe died in 1932 at age 59. Messick’s report quoted an obituary that recalled Ashe as “a man of transparent honesty, unselfish devotion to duty, happy and cheerful in his own work, and always appreciative of the work of others.”

That kind of praise is nothing to sneeze at.

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