The Junipers

Classic Western Trees

by Damian Fagan


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Southwest locals often refer to juniper trees as “cedars.” Towns like Cedar City, Utah, Cedaridge, Colorado or Cedar Springs, Nevada reflects this localism. Where this misnomer started is unknown. Probably some early settlers mistakenly were associating the overlapping, scalelike leaves or the shredded-bark-look or the reddish wood of a juniper to that of a cedar. Maybe that or Juniper City, Utah just didn’t have the same ring.

One big difference between the trees is that cedars produce small woody cones and junipers produce a bluish berrylike cone.

Junipers are to the Southwest what fir trees are to the Northwest: widespread and represented by several species. But junipers define the landscape with their glacial growth, half-dead/half-alive appearance and fragrant aroma. Though often maligned due to their invasion of grasslands, junipers provide food and resources for a variety of wildlife. Birds and mammals consume the seeds and vegetation, and the trees are used for nest sites or dens for rodents. People, too, have benefited from junipers for hundreds of years, using the trees for food, fuel and fenceposts.

Junipers occur from sea level to 10,000 in elevation across the West. In the Southwest, they are common on the mesa tops and ridges, often found in association with the pinyon pine. Though they may grow in pure stands, the trees are spaced apart because of their shade intolerance. The trees become established in overgrazed lands due to the lack of competition and dispersal of their seeds by wildlife.

Utah Juniper and berries.

Junipers bear both male and female cones, although the female cones are often referred to as “berries.” Most junipers are dioecious, meaning male and female cones are found on separate trees. Some trees may bear both types of cones.

The smaller male cones produce pollen sacs that release pollen grains in spring and summer. Hayfever sufferers will attest to this as the wind-borne pollen aggravates their allergies. The female cones have succulent and fleshy scales called sporophylls, and these scales fuse together after pollination. Enclosing the hard seed coat, the cones take one to three years to ripen depending upon the species. The cones or “berries” range from bluish to purplish-black or red and have a smooth, whitish “bloom” that gives them the appearance of a polished blueberry. Certain birds and mammals find these seeds edible; their stomach acids corrode the fleshy coating and hard seed coat, but the seeds pass through the system.

Utah Juniper in the winter.

Of the sixty species of junipers worldwide, about fifteen species grow in North America. Their growth habit may be sprawling, low shrubs or upright trees; their growth depends upon the species and environment where they grow. Slow growing, mature trees are easily hundreds of years old.

Another desert attribute of the tree is that junipers can inhabit poor quality soils and thrive where others fail. At times they are a pioneer species, able to become established in altered landscapes. Of course, these plants will also take advantage of fertile and moist sites and may be found growing in canyon bottoms or sheltered sites.

To exist in these dry climates, juniper trees have stout taproots and for some species extensive lateral root systems that efficiently obtain moisture where none seems to exist. Junipers are also dimorphic, meaning they have two growth forms. Seedlings bear bluish-green awl-shaped leaves that are pointed at the tip possibly to discourage herbivores. Mature leaves are darker green and scalelike in appearance. This juvenile form may help reduce herbivores from devouring the young plants. The mature leaves are borne in pairs or whorls of three, are rounded at the tip and appressed to the twig. As the trees age, the trunks may become twisted or gnarled. Exactly why this habit occurs, no one knows. Stout single trunks or multiple stems originating from the ground are a couple of forms the trees exhibit.

Junipers are members of the Cypress Family (Cupressaceae) which includes cedars. The genus Juniperus is the old Latin name for the plant. Click here to read about several junipers that grow in the Southwest and Great Basin regions.

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