A Quest for Junipers

My journey with junipers started in my childhood when I loved to add light blue juniper berries to my mud pies. Junipers were a stalwart of all of the childhood backyards I knew. Later I heard that junipers were a 1970s gardening cliche, and I accepted that they were tacky, especially those tortured into odd shapes. However, in a desert epiphany, I found those blue berries again on a dusty, orange path to the top of a hill outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. The contrast of dirt and berry mimicked the whole desert itself, the sky meeting the orange landscape. Passerby were puzzled that I photographed the berries, but I could not believe that my childhood mud pie ingredient had turned up in the desert.

Since then, I have wanted to learn the truth about junipers, that is, where do they exist outside of 1970s-inspired gardens?

The answer is that junipers live free in landscapes from the arctic to the desert. Although they have been unfortunately shaped into pom poms in backyards, they take on much nobler shapes in nature, shapes that reflect being in the path of gusty winds.

In the American West, junipers are found on granite slopes and in high desert country. They share space with other trees of great character such as Joshua trees and pinyons. The California juniper is one of California's native junipers. I was excited to learn that they could be found on the uppermost slopes of our local mountain, Mt. Diablo. With our one-year-old daughter happily riding in a stroller, my husband and I went on a quest to find these bent, blue-berried trees. The photographs that you see here are the result.

In my research, I also discovered a native California juniper called J. communis saxatalis that is available for garden planting. It is less than one foot tall and coexists well with rocks and our dry climate.

On a trip several years ago to Oak Creek Canyon outside Sedona, Arizona, I saw Utah junipers, which are some of the oldest plants in the park. They provide cover and berries for one of my favorite birds, the Gambel's quail, as well as mule deer, foxes, coyotes, and squirrels (I am surprised that coyotes eat the berries).

Juniper Life

When I was little, I didn't realize how special juniper berries are. They take up to 2 or 3 years to ripen. Unripened berries are green while ripe ones are blue.

Juniper berries are not just for decorating mud pies. They are the quintessential ingredient in gin; basically it can't be called gin unless it includes juniper berries. Gin is making a comeback as bold distilleries are adding other botanicals along with juniper berries such as rose petals, cucumber, ginger, and cardamom.

The recipe database lists 3 recipes that use juniper berries. They add an unusual note to marinades. I found a bottle of berries at my local gourmet store. They looked shriveled and ancient-- more like the bark of juniper trees than the berries.

Native Americans ate juniper berries, and a brand of Inuit tea, inspired by the Arctic tundra, includes juniper berries as a key ingredient along with red clover flowers.

In Britain, the native upland juniper is under threat (more), not due to gin enthusiasts raiding the berries in the middle of the night, but due to the old age of surviving plants. They have not been successful in producing healthy berries. The few new seedlings that do result are at risk from grazing animals, predominantly sheep.

The commitment to juniper conservation is so strong that experienced mountaineers have gotten involved in planting new junipers. The mountaineers are seeking out rocky crags to establish as new juniper homes that sheep cannot reach (more).

Juniper Symbolism

In aromatherapy, juniper acts as a calming ingredient. It is traditionally a symbol of protection. The Navajo have used branches for prayer sticks.

An update in August 2005: a travel article by Karla Zimmerman of the Lonely Planet reveals that Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims visiting the Tibetan capital of Lhasa honor holy sites by burning juniper incense.

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