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The Common Juniper

posted Jan 13, 2013, 10:42 AM by Garima Fairfax   [ updated Jan 13, 2013, 10:45 AM ]
We have in our woods here in Colorado a prostrate juniper called Common Juniper (Juniperus communis subsp. alpina). Less than 3 feet high, it forms a low, spreading clump. You’ve probably seen this coniferous undershrub in our forests, but you may not be aware of how common it really is. It turns out that it is the most widely distributed conifer in the world, and the only circumpolar conifer in the northern hemisphere. That’s enough to warrant a closer look.

This Common Juniper is an evergreen shrub with short, sharp needles, with female or male cones generally on separate plants. The female cone scales are fused together to look like round berries, green at first, then ripening to a dark blue with a grayish “bloom” or coating. The male cones are very small, and can be found at the tips of the branches while they form pollen. After they release their pollen, they disintegrate.

The female berries are an important source of food for birds and small mammals in our woods, and have a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans coast to coast, Europeans, and Northern Asians. This low, spreading juniper, which is found sprawling under Ponderosa Pines of the foothills and all the way up to Bristlecone Pines in the subalpine, proves itself to be a valuable and adaptable member of our ecosystem.

  • Benedict, Audrey DeLella. 2008. The Naturalist’s Guide to the Rockies: Colorado, Southern Wyoming, and New Mexico. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado. 
  • Kershaw, Linda; MacKinnon, Andy, and Pojar, Jim. 1998. Plants of the Rocky Mountains. Lone Pine Press, Canada.
  • Lanner, Ronald M. 1999. Conifers of California. Cachuma Press, Los Olivos, California. 
  • Weber, William A. 2001. Colorado Flora: Eastern Slope. 3rd ed. Univ. of Colorado Press, Niwot, Colorado.