Junipers–Edible, Medicinal, Drinkable, Literary, and Magical!

Want a suggestion on how to make a Bloody Mary without alcohol?

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Bark of the Rocky Mountain Juniper

Juniperus is the largest of the genus in family Cupressaceae and consists of at least 55 species. Four species are mapped in City Park. Four species are also native to Colorado, three of which are marked in the park. The fourth, Juniperus communis is a low-spreading shrub. (Flora of Colorado, Ackerfield, 2015.)

The junipers, often mistakenly called cedars, were used by many Native American tribes. Rocky Mountain Juniper branches were used for purification, the red colored wood for lance shafts and bows. The Cheyenne were said to prize the wood for flutes. The boughs were used to line sweat lodges, and a few tribes bathed their horses in water steeped with juniper to give their coats a high sheen. It may also have been a dandruff deterrent.

The berries, which are actually the seed cones of the plant, could be dried and strung for necklaces. An ingenious way of producing a hole in the berry was to allow ants to eat out the sweet inner core. Smoked they turned black. Dyes can  be made from the roots and berries. One source mentions that the wood is used in making pencils.

Mythology says that juniper boughs have been used to ward off devils and witches, while dreaming of the berries had symbolic meaning. Giving berries as gifts conferred honor on the recipient.

Of course, there were numerous uses of the berries as both food and medicine, but not only in Native American cuisine. In Europe they are used to flavor German sauerkraut and Swedish pickles, as well as to cut the gaminess of venison and other meats. One of the best known uses for juniper berries is in making gin. Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies (Kershaw, 2000) includes an easy recipe for making a Tricky Mary, a virgin Bloody Mary in which you allow juniper berries to flavor tomato juice.

Medicinal uses include the ubiquitous cure for a cold and other chest aliments, as a digestive aid, and for inflammation. According to Edible & Medicianal Plants of the Rockies a berry tea has been used to prevent pregnancy and also as a hunger suppressant. The berries were used by practitioners in the Middle Ages to help ward off Black Death. 

At the same time that many books and sites on the Internet provide recipe ideas for the berries, most also warn against large doses, especially for pregnant women. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies warns that over ingesting can result in convulsions and kidney failure while oil applied topically may case blistering. Even those who tout natural remedies  warn against eating the berries without knowing what you are doing.  At least one species is identified as a known toxin.

Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) is native throughout Colorado other than the most eastern counties. Trees can grow even in Weld and Logan counties.  Rocky Mountain Juniper grow through most western states except California. One clue to its habitat range may be that it does not tolerate high humidity. This species was used in ways similar to the general discussion above.

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Rocky Mountain Juniper

The twigs and branches of Juniperus scopulorum are an important food source for the elk and deer of the region, while the berries are an important part of the diet of many smaller males and bird.

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Twigs and leaves of Rocky Mountain Juniper

 

The One-Seed Juniper is native to the American Southwest. Its range includes southwest Colorado (Flora of Colorado, Ackerfield, 2015). Its name is derived from the fact that its cones (berries) normally have but one seed each. The plant is common in the higher elevations of New Mexico and due to its long tap root, is able to survive in drier areas. The Santa Fe Botanic Gardens Newsletter says the ash from this tree is still used in Navajo wool dyeing as well as part of traditional Pueblo food recipes. The branches and smoke from burning juniper are also part of various ceremonies. Other sources mention that the bark was used to make mats and cloth.

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One-seed Juniper
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Leaves and cones of the One-seed Juniper

 

The Utah Juniper grows naturally in nine of the western states, including Colorado. Again, it is not native to Larimer County. Canyonlands National Parks says this “indomitable Juniper” can grow in “an environment of baking heat, bone-chilling cold, intense sunlight, little water and fierce winds.”

The Alpine Nature Center in Alpine, Utah, provides a chart of the differences between the Rocky Mountain Juniper and the Utah Juniper.

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Utah Juniper

Most of the distinguishing characteristics are related to color and shape. For instance, the bark of the Rocky Mountain juniper has a reddish hue while that of the Utah is more gray. This is barely discernible in the photos accompanying this post. The biggest difference might be that both male and female cones are born on the Utah Juniper while the Rocky Mountain junipers have distinct male and female trees. The aforementioned site claims a yeast in the berries is what is important to the gin making process. It also includes a recipe using juniper berries as the starter for a sourdough!

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The grayer bark of the Utah Juniper

 

I’ve been aware of a literary journal called Alligator Juniper for some time and always thought it was an odd name until I learned it was named after the Alligator Juniper tree.

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Alligator Juniper

Its habitat in the US includes only Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. One look at its bark, and it is easy to understand where it got its name.

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The patchy, scaly bark of the Alligator Juniper

This species has both male and female trees, with only the berries/cones on the female tree worth eating. The male pollen cones are the reason this tree is listed as a moderate allergen.

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Male pollen cones on the Alligator Juniper three

According to a post about the trees in Texas, this is a slow grower. One interesting study of the effects of climate change has shown that the Alligator Juniper has “crept” to higher elevations over the last fifty years.

The mentioned uses of the berries and other parts of the tree coincide with those of other junipers, although some reports for this specific species mention how strong the juniper taste is. For those of you interested in boutique spirits, at least one company is making a gin with Alligator Juniper berries known as Mt. Lemmon Gin. The Zuni use it as incense.

How to find the Junipers:

E60: Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorumFind the tagged specimen on the other side of the fence in front of the miniature train station. It is across from Club Tico on City Park Drive. 

D199 One-seed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma). This tree is located along the east side of Sheldon Lake between the lake and the road, near the Douglas Fir and the frog statues. One author mentioned that One-seed Junipers look somewhat like Arborvitae, so look for a squat conifer.

C127 Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). This specimen is located between playing fields on the S side of City Park Drive as you head toward the Jackson Street exit. If you are driving east from the junipers mentioned above, cross Sheldon Drive and park about two-thirds of the way to the exit, near a group of trees that are encircled with bricks. You will need to walk as the tree is a short distance from the road. I was not able to locate the tag, but after reading that the Utah juniper produces both seed cones (berries) and pollen cones, it seemed obvious that this is the correct tree. 

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Look closely to see the brown pollen and the blue seed cones of the Utah Juniper

To find C157, Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), you could walk south from the Utah Juniper toward the corner of W. Mulberry and Jackson to a small clump of trees. You could also drive and park just S of the intersection of W. Magnolia and Jackson. This smaller conifer seems set off by itself. To find the tag, you need to walk into the branches. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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