Juniper: an evergreen for all my seasons

Juniper in Flying Hat Ranchito grove, often referred to as cedar (J. Matthews, 2011).

(As a disclosure, I use “cedar” and “juniper” interchangeably.  See notes below from Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.)

I grew up with cedar all around me, but cedar posts for building fence predominated.  T-posts (the steel ones) may be making fence construction faster these days, but I hold to the cedar post as a primary building material.  Allergies from cedar congest the lungs of Texans, particularly central residents who weather the Mountain Cedar every year.  A website dedicates itself to, “Cedar: The Allergy Plague of Trees.

All of that being said, the cedar or juniper holds personal value for me beyond the descriptions, quotes and links I attach in this post.

Of all the flora about me as I grew up and the plants about me now, the juniper radiates scent and memories, even beyond the majestic pecan in my far pasture.  I burned juniper in a Folger’s coffee can to sweeten the air at campsites and even in my apartment from time to time, placing the coffee can at the edge of the hearth.  I have taken cedar bark and twisted it into fine pieces and lit a single match to start a campfire, and I have carried cedar tinder in my backpack to start fire along the trail.  I cut cedar staves and posts one Christmas vacation to earn extra money and to say, I once worked as a cedar chopper.

Green juniper groves along the Colorado River near Bend, Texas, contrasted with bleached white-gray rock outcroppings, and I found old campsites of roundups in pastures about the river, the blackened rock, not the red, holding the remains of cedar fires.  My grandmother once pointed out a cow camp firepit near the Colorado that she had cooked for the crew and her husband-cowboy Jake, before his accident on the horse Hell’s Canyon.

I have camped near cedar breaks many times, but the one time I remember was on the Zuni Reservation, out in the middle of the reservation, by myself with junipers and coyotes through the night.  I built a small fire of cedar and munched on a juniper berry for its bitter effect.  I had sped to the reservation from Grants, New Mexico, and hastily set up camp, sleeping in my bedroll beside the fire the night through.  I was seeking a medicine man, but he never found my camp.

More often than not at Christmas time, my family cut a juniper tree from the ranch to place in the living room.  The tree may have been as short as three feet, at other times, five-feet tall.  I loved the aroma of the juniper as it filled the house for Christmas.  Tinsel drooped from the branches with those bubbly lights all aglow.

Near Abilene, on the road to Coleman, there is a park on the east side of the highway at Buffalo Gap, a broad cut in the hills that buffalo and migrants used to go into southwest Texas from the High Plains and Caprock.  The park has a large grove of junipers that have trunks three to five feet in diameter.  I have rested there many times and note the broad-deep shade the junipers provide in the Summer and windbreak during Winter.  From the Juniper Park — as I have taken to call it — one can see into Buffalo Gap and off in the distance the plains to the north.  This Juniper Park has been a lookout, a redoubt of some sort, for a long, long time.  I think I stopped there one time when I was traveling to Brownwood to take care of my aging mother, or it may have been another time, and I rolled the windows down to smell the juniper and place my hand on the fertile greenery I had known all my life, or that other day anew in late Spring.  I thought then, as I do now, that I will remember this day for as long as I live, for although my mother lay dying and I was teaching in a foreign land, the evergreen of juniper and its effect transcended my sorrow and sense of alienation from this world.  I have found home and peace and love beneath junipers for all my seasons.  To me, its fruit is never bitter.


Notes, corrections and additions:

Some juniper trees are misleadingly given the common name “cedar,” including Juniperus virginiana, the “red cedar” that is used widely in cedar drawers. True cedars are those tree species in the genus Cedrus, family Pinaceae.

In Morocco, the tar (gitran) of the arar tree (Juniperus phoenicea) is applied in dotted patterns on bisque drinking cups. Gitran makes the water more fragrant and is said to be good for the teeth.

American Indians have used juniper to treat diabetes; such treatments by the Navajo, for example, are under clinical study.[3] Clinical studies have shown that treatment with juniper may retard the development of streptozotocin diabetes in mice.[4] Native Americans also used juniper berries as a female contraceptive.[5] The 17th Century herbalistphysicianNicholas Culpeper recommended the ripened berries for conditions such as asthma and sciatica, as well as to speed childbirth.[6]

“Juniper,” Wikipedia, accessed December 25, 2011.

* * *

juniper, any of about 60 to 70 species of aromatic evergreen trees or shrubs constituting the genus Juniperus of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The juvenile leaves of a juniperare needlelike. Mature leaves are awl-shaped, spreading, and arranged in pairs or in whorls of three. Some species have small, scalelike leaves, often bearing an oil gland, which are pressed closely to the rounded or four-angled branchlets. Male and female reproductive structures usually are borne on separate plants. The reddish brown or bluish cones are fleshy and berrylike and often have a grayish, waxy covering. They mature in 1 to 3 seasons and contain 1 to 12 seeds, usually 3.

Common juniper (J. communis), a sprawling shrub, is widely distributed on rocky soils throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Many ornamental cultivars have been developed. The berrylike megastrobilus of this species is used to flavour foods and alcoholic beverages, particularly gin, which is named after Juniperus through the French genièvre. Juniper “berries” have a fragrant, spicy aroma and a slightly bittersweet flavour. Used with venison, they remove the gamey taste. They are also used to season sauces and stuffings, in pickling meats, and to flavour liqueurs and bitters.

An important ornamental and timber tree of eastern North America is the eastern red cedar (J. virginiana), whose fragrant wood is made into cabinets, fence posts, and pencils. This species is an invader of glades, pastures, prairies, and other open grassy areas in parts of its range; thus, it is considered a troublesome weed by some botanists and land managers. The savin (J. sabina) of central Europe, Chinese juniper (J. chinensis) of eastern Asia, and creeping juniper (J. horizontalis) of eastern North America are other popular ornamental species with many horticultural varieties. The wood of incense, or Spanish, juniper (J. thurifera), of Spain and Portugal, and of Phoenician juniper (J. phoenicea) of the Mediterranean region sometimes is burned as incense.

Oil of juniper, distilled from the wood and leaves of several species, is used in perfumes and in medicines such as diuretics. Galls produced by junipers as a reaction to fungal infection are known as cedar apples. This fungus, cedar apple rust, completes its life cycle on members of the apple subfamily of the flowering plant family Rosaceae, which contains numerous species of trees and shrubs commercially valuable as fruit and ornamental plants. The growth of junipers around apple orchards and plantings of related genera is thus discouraged to avoid disfigurement or loss of these important cultivated plants.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “juniper,” accessed December 25, 2011,


Filed under Cedar, Juniper, Life in Balance

12 responses to “Juniper: an evergreen for all my seasons

  1. Interesting post Jack. I’ve long been fond of juniper and cedar too. We used to cut loads of it for firewood from north central Arizona, about 80 miles north of Phoenix, where the Indians called it “knock down cedar”. I don’t know the species of them but they were rather stocky and grew to about 30 feet tall. Hard winds would push over the large dead ones, hence the Indian name.

    Here we have the common Juniper as well as Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) and in many of the deep canyons, Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata). Lots of good memories associated with both!

  2. Hello Jack! I love the scent of juniper and of spruce – and I’ve got some spruce in my home in Christmas-time, not a whole tree – and the scent is heavenly. It is so exciting that when you read about the use of junipery then it is the same for how the Indians and the ancient people here in Europe used juniper. Almost exactly the same.
    I’ve got a little pot with dried berries I have plucked in Mols Bjerge. ( it’s necessary to wear gloves when you pluck!) You might know the place. There is much juniper in the hills at Mols, although they have been clearing out the hills lately, but now the junipers actually thrive better. I guess they are Common Juniper. I didn’t realize there were so many sorts.
    I use the berries for some meat-dishes and for a juniper snaps for my guests!
    I liked your story about your memories attached to juniper.
    I tried to find the juniper park on Google Earth, but Texas is so enormous that the road to Coleman from Abilene is not just a little country road like the road from Århus to Randers here in Jutland! Me oh my!!! Do you ever feel lost in that huge country?
    Grethe `)

  3. I appreciate the way you entwined the juniper with the events of your life to make this heartfelt account. Well done.

    Here in Austin we have several Ashe junipers surrounding our house, and as January is almost here, I’m afraid cedar fever, as they call it in these parts, is about to make some of us miserable.

    Steve Schwartzman

  4. Rubia

    I find it fascinating that your family cut down juniper to serve as a Christmas tree! My father did that many years for our family as well, in the hills south of Sweetwater, TX. Consequently the family was always very sick with allergies every Christmas! My parents figured it out after 5 or 6 years and we acquired an artificial tree from a garage sale. Junipers are very close to my heart as well, but from experience they are best enjoyed with loved ones in nature not the living room!

  5. In our neck of the woods we have common juniper, from which gin berries come from, and hence the flavor of gin, and eastern red cedar, which is a true juniper. We also have white cedar and swamp cedar which are simply marvelous trees that live for long periods of time.
    This was a really interesting post, Jack, I really like how it flowed.

    • Thanks, Bill. Some of our writings flow and others kind of stutter. Four cedars in your area! I must look closer at the junipers in my grove to determine their particular attributes.

  6. I love the cedar, although too much of it can be a bad thing in drought, especially too close to homes. I don’t have to tell you about that.

    My own Christmas tree – artificial though it may be – is a cedar. It’s about five feet tall, and double-trunked, and looks for all the world like it just was cut in the Texas hills.

    There’s nothing like cedar fever to make a person miserable. Here’s a pic of cedar “exploding” with pollen. I’d credit the pic but I can’t remember where it came from – it may or may not be one I took back in 2005 when things were so bad around Kerrville the pollen was hanging like a haze in the air. I just can’t remember. But it shows the phenomenon very well.

    • Wow, I’ve never seen the junipers here do what your picture shows, but my eyes and nose have felt the effects. Still, the photographer in me would photograph a pollen cloud like that if I ever got the chance, regardless of the price I’d pay.

  7. Pingback: Reason 1,230 to preserve species and biodiversity, New viper species found, An enviornmental wishlist for Congress | tangledwing

  8. Pingback: Juniperus ashei | Find Me A Cure

  9. Pingback: Juniperus communis | Find Me A Cure

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