Impressive Relics of the Old West

The beautiful California and Rocky Mountain junipers have earned legendary status.

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Junipers are among the toughest evergreens of the Great Basin and the American Southwest. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself / DIY)

From the High Sierras to the Rockies live a half-dozen species of monumental native juniper. Among them are scattered old fellows with the most curious damage to their unusually straight trunks. Long scars run the vertical length of the bole, visibly hacked out of the wood at the top and bottom. The edges of the wound are smooth and clean.

In 1988, Philip Wilke's paper was published explaining the origin and frequency of damaged Juniperus osteoperma in western Nevada. The conclusion was that Paiute, Shoshoni and Ute tribes preferred juniper wood for bow staves. Once a tree of the perfect habit, size and grain was chosen, a hammer stone was used to hack out a V-shaped wedge at the top and bottom of the section. This severed the conductive tissues so that the wood in between died. The worker left the stave on the tree to season, and once dry enough to eliminate warping, he pried it away from the surrounding live wood.

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Heat, snow and a hostile arid climate cause junipers to become twisted. Though these specimens are beautiful, they were not valued sources for American Indian bow staves. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself / DIY)

This is just one example of how American Indians, formerly considered passive hunter-gatherers, actually used horticultural practices to alter the states of plants. But the juniper was far more useful than that. One author describes how the life of every Havasupai living around the Grand Canyon was once inextricably tied to juniper from cradle to grave. It provided material for the cradle, baskets, cords, utensils, firewood, weapons, medicine, insecticide and food.

It is the berries of female juniper plants that are edible. They were given to babies when weaned. Navajo used them to dye spun wool before weaving blankets. Juniper charcoal was preferred for smelting their famous silver jewelry.

When the hot winds blow in the West you can smell the junipers, a scent that results from oil in the foliage evaporating into the air. Mingled with sagebrush, it is an aromatic experience that evokes images of badlands, horses and warrior tribes.

This oil contains antiseptic qualities used by many tribes to treat symptoms of the common cold. The plants offered a dozen medicinal applications, from pains of childbirth to treating rheumatism. Fresh leaves were burned as incense in ceremonies, cleansings and rituals of protection against lightning and thunder. This smoke was also used to fumigate dwellings and to drive out evil spirits. Settlers adopted this practice to chase away closed-house smells in winter by adding fresh-cut bough tips to boiling water on the wood stove.

Among the native junipers, two Western species are available via garden centers and native-plant specialists. The California juniper, Juniperus californica, enjoys a huge natural range from interior Oregon south to the Mexican border. It exhibits incredible heat-, cold- and drought-resistance, with a highly variable mature size. Where there is adequate water, it can grow to as much as 40 feet. But where conditions are poor, it may find difficulty reaching just 10. This is the best selection for high and low deserts as well as dry foothill regions.

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Rocky Mountain juniper can often be found in the pinyon pine plant communities at higher elevations. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself / DIY)


The Rocky Mountain juniper, Juniperus scopulorum, attains about the same size as its California cousin. This species ranges much farther north into British Columbia, and was used by the Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Flathead and Sioux. It is most often found in mountains, proving a good candidate for landscapes in higher elevations of ranges throughout the West. This species came into gardens with much more vigor, and breeders developed cultivars featuring more columnar habit and blue-tinged foliage.

Junipers are too often overlooked as common, and most people find it tough to identify lower-growing northern species and Asian relatives. But in the West, large proportions, sinuous growth and mounding canopies deserve a closer look. The California and Rocky Mountain junipers earned legendary status and should be counted among the most beautiful relics of the Old West.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network.

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