Junipers are not the trees you think of associated with the drizzly Pacific Northwest. But they are old friends from home in the much drier south, much to the dismay of many pollen allergy sufferers there. The male trees can be so prolific it looks like smoke in the air. For this and other misinformed reasons, there is a trend of hating these trees, which are in fact native to this area across the south though they are spreading in an unhistorical way. To my endless annoyance people call these trees cedars. That’s a left-over from the history of mistaking them for a Cedrus not Juniperus species. Despite knowing for a long time that they are in the Juniper genus, the common name of a cedar persists as southerners are what you may understate as “stubborn”. Don’t get me started on Spanish “moss”…
As allergy sufferers may well know, junipers are wind pollinated, hence loading the air/wind with their pollen. No need for bees or birds or beetles. What they lack in the precision of animal-aided pollen movement they make up for in volume. “Cover everything in a square mile and surely there will be some female flowers of my kind in there.” Some junipers are more famous for this and especially when they have large populations so the cumulative effect of tree-mating season can be impressive.
There are 13 juniper species that range in any part of North America. There are actually two native junipers in Washington: J. occidentalis (meaning “western”, of course) and Juniperus maritima (“seaside” and only newly discovered endemic to WA and British Columbia in Canada). Originally it was thought the J. maritima was a subspecies of the very common and wide-ranging Rocky Mountain juniper (which is all along the western US Rockies and into western Canada) but has recently been categorized as its own unique species and quite unusual to have along the wetter PNW region. It found special pockets of drier rockier soils to inhabit where it isn’t outcompeted by faster growing trees.
Juniperus occidentalis distribution
The western juniper is actually expanding its habitat range since the 1990’s and particularly in eastern Oregon, which is not surprising as climate trends dry and warm, which is fine by a juniper. Like other species, western juniper has an extensive root system. Like other dry-climate trees, they are slow growing and long-living with some exceeding 1,000 years. Researchers have found that 40-50% of observed trees will make only female cones (that will then produce the juniper ‘berries’) and only 10% produce only male. So that’s a relief for western pollen allergy sufferers. More berries, less pollen load. Fine by me. But young trees won’t produce any cones for a while and you’ll know them by their different spiny needles instead of typical tiny scale leaves. Didn’t know you could check for puberty on a tree, before did ya?? It’s possible the spinier leaves on smaller trees helps reduce browsing by the local wildlife (lookin at you deer).
The fruits also range in their maturity time from species to species, with them generally taking between one to three years. That means you’ll probably see a female tree (or a hermaphroditic one) with both young green and mature bluish fruits at the same time.
Juniper “berries” are nowhere near being an actual berry. They are a bit like yew tree “fruits”, a fellow conifer, and are in fact a fleshy cone.... Ew. “Fleshy cone” is one of those terms that kind of gives ya the heebie-jeebies, huh? Sounds like a descriptor out of a romance novel written by aliens. Junipers may be a connection between gymnosperms and angiosperms within one of the more recently evolved families of gymnosperms (Cupressaceae), with evolution of a fleshy dispersal coating like fruit around its seeds, but not evolved from a mature ovary like true fruits. You’d need a microscope to tell they aren’t true fruits like those of flowering plants because it’s all in the way they are formed. So let’s not get too berry-picky, kay? Juniper berry-cones are fabulous for plenty of reasons and hold from one to six seeds depending on the species.
Fun ID fact- J. maritima uniquely has open “berries” with a seed exposed to the outside, like mom forgot to tuck one kiddo in for the winter.
Quick question- What IS an actual berry then? Strawberries- also not a berry. I know! Farmers & grocery stores area terrible at botany. Botanically, a berry is defined as a fruit (meaning from a flowering plant, not conifer) that originates from a single pistil with several seeds developed inside as it matures. Tomatoes & peppers, blueberries & cranberries (accurate), plus grapes, currents, bananas (I know but it is!), also orange and eggplants. But NOT- strawberry (that’s a bunch of tiny fruits on a swollen chunk of stem), or raspberries or blackberries which are aggregate fruits, from multiple pistils- check-out the tiny hair-like things poking from each fruity bump. So yeah, “berry” is a very misused term, but that’s because people started calling any small tasty fruit a berry before botanist nailed down a precise definition. So we totally forgive you! Blend that “berry” smoothy up & enjoy.
Speaking of eating “berries”… Not all species of juniper’s fleshy cones are considered edible or even safe- some species are flat out poisonous. Don’t put just any in your smoothy. But it is very few juniper that are dangerous and none native to North America, so we are fairly safe. There are about 67 accepted Juniperus species in the world with 60 of those in the northern hemisphere. They are all evergreen conifers. Some are trees, other creeping shrubs and they are all known to tolerate more extreme habitats and rocky regions.
Species in North America that are edible, include:
seaside (J. maritima) – very limited range in only western WA & British Columbia
American (J. californica) – in California and very bitter though technically edible.
creeping (J. horizontalis) – across northern North America and distinctly low-growing
one-seed (J. monosperma) – name says it- only 1 seed, in western US and northern Mexico
alligator (J. deppeana) – have very cool bark- hence named for alligator skin- and grow in southwestern US into Mexico, with very strong flavor and 15mm “conerries” so use sparingly.
ash cedar (J. ashei) – from west Texas into south Mississippi (commonly called mountain cedar, not a cedar), has more shrub-like and irregular growth form.
Pinchot’s (J. pinchotti) – southern New Mexico through west and central Texas & north into Oklahoma. Deep red/burgundy berries which are sweet & non-resinous
Rocky Mountain (J. scopulorum) – *2nd most commonly consumed, also found in west WA islands and throughout all of western US and into Canada.
Sierra (J. occidentalis) – in western states, has reddish peeling bark
Utah (J. osteosperma) – in southwestern US with larger cones (up to 13mm)
Virginia (J. virginiana) – from Texas into eastern US (sometimes called Eastern red cedar, sigh- not a cedar).
Useful Key to Juniper genus of US & Canada: HERE
There’s also the tallest species that is native to Europe (J. drupacea) and has large “conerries” up to 30mm (wow!). Juniperus communis is the most edible, which is to say the least toxic as all have a tiny bit of toxicity, similar to most spices. 'Everything in moderation'.
Inedible/toxic “conerries” are those of J. sabina (the tam or savin juniper) which are from China and Europe but can be found planted as landscaping plants in the US. They are high in sabinene and sabinol compounds which are toxic to us. ID: leaves have an unpleasant scent when crushed. It also grows fairly low but less creeping than the creeping juniper and spiking upward into the air more. Also the J. oxycedrus (cade or prickly juniper) is toxic but rare in the US because they are native to Europe and has short pokey spiney leaves when mature (similar to the most-edible J. communis). Prickly juniper makes uniquely orange-red cones with a pale triangle bottom & indent.
Other species with highly bitter cones (but technically edible to moderate degree) are high in the resin thujone (named for cedar trees of the Thuja genus) which are a bit toxic in high amounts. So a field taste-test before your harvest is a good idea, to see how bitter they are as you probably won’t have much use for anything that level of edible. Just make sure they are actually from a juniper!
Juniper fruits come off the axis of a leaf, so steer clear if it’s not in the arm-pit of a stem and leaf. Cypress trees (Cupressus genus) form fairly similar blueish fruits and small scale leaves, and they are NOT edible. So “know before you go” with foraging. Cypress fruits/fleshy cones are more decorative like spiked torches instead of berries, with short protruding points in a loose pattern around the ends. They are also bigger than most juniper cones. Even more cautionary- don’t pick any red fruits from a conifer. They are probably from a yew (in the Taxus genus) which are very very toxic. True that above we learned there are edible red juniper “conerries”, but there are also some inedible and with the possible confusion with these even more toxic fleshy cones of yew, I say steer clear of them all unless you’re a pro. Plenty of cattle deaths have been attributed to them and often without any initial symptoms. You may not even have a warning you messed up. But they also look very different, even the leaves of a yew are quite different from a juniper’s.
Remember- red conifer cone will “Tax-us”, blue with spikes aren’t that nice, but blue and round are gin-bound.
Let’s also address this whole “I’m gonna call it a cedar because I don’t pay attention to trees but I advertise their names” thing. Trying so hard to hold in my botany-judginess, how am I doing?? Cedars are in the Thuja genus and have scale leaves (similar to a juniper’s) but they look more like a squished tulip flower with two opposite leaves of round bottom pulled up to point like a tulip petal from the side and then a leaf between them like a petal viewed from straight on).
Uses- drinks, syrups, and meat and sometimes as a stand in for peppercorns. Northern Europe uses juniper “conerries” (cone/berry) very frequently in cuisine. It’s common in German sauerkraut and sometimes even found in beer and sourdough starters because the white coating is actually a wild yeast that grows in certain species. Self-yeasting cone-beer? Yes please! They overall taste sharp, ‘piney’ or resinous, and a bit woody, sometimes even floral with some being a notably sweet, while others are unpalatably bitter as we've mentioned. We get most of the 'juniper' flavors from terpenes in the cones, which are the strong aroma compounds of plants (giving eucalyptus, cannabis, citrus, sage, lavender, and mint their scent & flavor among so many others, especially herbs). The cones are also used medicinally for a handful of ailments. Stick to moderation, just like with the gin. Consuming too many cones may cause stomach irritation and even increase your heart rate. Some people are allergic to them and can have a dermatitis from handling them. You’ll probably want to test for such an allergy with your hands before harvesting a bunch and trying any other uses. I am so glad nothing has shown up for me as an allergy from plants because I can’t help touching most of them.