Rocky Mountain Junipers

Rocky Mountain Juniper Life

Rocky Mountain junipers echo the shapes of the peaks around them. Reaching the size of small trees, they are taller than most junipers--the loftiest in Colorado. They fill sunny slopes with deep evergreen and reddish-brown wooden trunks.

Their branches hang down in a "witches' broom" shape. On Halloween, it's easy to imagine a dressed-up witch creeping up in the mountain midnight to grab a branch and "fly away" down the valley. Perhaps ghosts could meet up in the dark evergreen caves made by the drooping branches around the trunk.

On the other days of the year, the juniper provides food and homes for wildlife. Elk, deer, and bighorn sheep eat the branches. Birds, like cedar waxwings, and small mammals feast on the tree's small blue berries. The junipers also simply provide homes for birds, such as sparrows, juncos, and robins.

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A Quest to Find Rocky Mountain Junipers

I learned about Rocky Mountain junipers at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings just outside Colorado Springs. After exploring ancient earthen rooms, visitors can also learn about local plants with historical importance. Stopping to really notice the plants and trees and read more about them, I felt so much more rooted in the landscape. Those who lived long ago in the dwellings gathered juniper wood for fires and picked berries for teas and medicine.

Witches' broom shape branches in a Rocky Mountain juniper, taken by Sherry Smith, Manitou Cliff Dwellings, Colorado Springs, 7/2016

The twisty trunk and scaly leaves look like a classic juniper. But the drooping branches and height seem different--like the Rocky Mountain style of juniper. This must have been an Eastern slope since I learned later the trees cluster in sunrise-drenched sites in Colorado.