More than Just a Juniper

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By Nicole Burns

Juniper is a member of the Cupressaceae family. The common names of Juniper include: Juniperus California Junipercommunis (Juniper Berry, Common juniper, Drooping Juniper, Mexican Juniper, Horse Savin, Ginepro, Spanish: Enebro, Bellota de Sabina/Sabino, Guata) and Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar, Red Cedar, Cedar Tree, Juniper, Juniper Bush, Savin, Evergreen Cedar Apple, Virginia Red Cedar).

Juniper can be found in Europe, southwestern Asia up to the Himalayas as well as North America where it is known to grow from the southern coastal areas to the northerly mountainous regions. A low prickly bush or shrubby tree, the Juniper can grow between four and fifty feet high. This slow growing coniferous evergreen with slender twigs and silvery-green spiny needles bears small yellow male flowers and blue female flowers in late spring to early summer. Male flowers and fruits grow on separate bushes from the female. The male plant bears cones and pollen while the female plant produces the seeds that turn into berries which are cultivated. It flowers in May and a year or two later the fleshy fruit is produced. The berries can take up to three years to ripen when they change from green to silvery purple. The berries can be found in various stages of ripeness on the same plant. The farther south the plant is grown the berries’ flavor is stronger. The berries are usually gathered in the autumn when they are ripe.

Throughout history juniper has been used by every culture for many different reasons. It has been used for purifying and ritual cleansing. It was burned to ward off evil spirits and the plague. The indigenous people have used juniper for its medicinal purposes. Many of the medicinal recipes in the Egyptian papyri dating to 1550 BCE, including the remedy to treat tapeworm have survived. 200 years ago juniper was used in Europe to strengthen the body of those who were sick and to maintain the health of the well. Juniper is also known as genvier, which is the term that “gin” was derived from. The berries are used in gin giving it its distinctive taste.

Native Americans preferred the California juniper (J. californica), which grows here in the Prime Desert Woodland Preserve. They also use the Utah juniper (J. utahensis), and the alligator juniper (J. pachyphlaea). The berries are dried and then ground up into a meal that is shaped into patties and fried. The Navajos used a similar method but they used the ash of the juniper to mix with their blue corn meal to make piki bread also known as paper bread. Though the taste might have been bitter, it did keep the body and soul together and it was easy to digest. The Zunis made tea from the toasted branches for relaxing the muscles before childbirth began and to speed the recovery during and after the delivery. The Tewa tribe burned branches of the juniper in the dwelling of a woman who had just given birth. The Spanish Americans learned of the native plant from the indigenous tribes and they used the tea to treat an inflamed stomach and relieve muscle spasms. Incense was made from the Red Cedar Juniper and used by Native American tribes for purification and ritual.

Junipers can be found throughout the Antelope Valley. Many of the fences of the old farms and ranches used juniper branches for their fence posts. Some of these posts are still in use today. The pioneers of Lancaster and Palmdale used juniper as their stable source of firewood. The Native Americans that migrated through the Antelope Valley would trade shells, hides, and other goods for the berries, roots and bark of the juniper all of which could be made into a tea. The bark was also used to make rope. The juniper is a sacred plant of the Native Americans. The desert tribes have used the junipers for shelter. Most tribe villages were not more then a day’s walk from a juniper plant. Junipers were so important to the natives that they practiced active management by limiting the harvest from individual plants and protecting them from fire as well as herbivorous animals. Large slivers of trunk were used for bow making.

Here are a few recommended books that describe the use of junipers in Native American culture:

  • Indian Herbalogy of North America: the Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses by Alma R. Hutchens, 1973
  • How Indians Used Desert Plants by James W. Cornett, 2002
  • American Indian Healing Arts: Herbs, Rituals, and Remedies For Every Season of Life by E. Barrie Kavasch and Karen Baar, 1999

A few good websites: