The Juniper Tree

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When I first arrived In Abiquiu, which is situated in the northern mountains of New Mexico, I discovered a very small (about 2 foot tall) juniper growing just outside my windows that overlook the southwestern horizon. Native grasses had all but obscured the small tree, the only one in the front of Guadalupe’s (almost) round house.

Immediately I decided that this little tree needed my attention, so within a week I had cut down the thick grasses and ringed the tree with river stones. At this point I began to water, and after fertilizing the tree once, I continued this practice throughout the summer and early fall. I watched in amazement how the juniper flourished, sprouting new blue green spiked needles. By mid-autumn this tree had added about two inches to each branch, and had filled out considerably. A few birds began to land in the lengthening branches, and some days I would discover a praying mantis tucked into her center close to the slender trunk. This little fellow would start waving his legs and washing his face as soon as I started watering! Every morning I touched her boughs tenderly, commenting on how beautiful she was becoming. I told the tree that when winter came I would festoon her with tiny white lights to celebrate the low shadowy light and the coming of the winter solstice. Whenever I spoke to the little tree she seemed to listen; we were developing a reciprocal relationship that I could sometimes feel.

Although I soon had small cottontails eating seed I left around the tree each morning, I noticed that the rabbits never chewed on the tree. Researching junipers in general I read that they are dimorphic, meaning that they have two growth forms. One is upright, and the other much more common is bush-like opening to the sun like a flower. Even the biggest trees are not taller than 40 feet. The seedlings (like mine) bear bluish green awl shaped leaves that are pointed at the tip probably to discourage herbivores like my cottontails. Mature leaves are a darker green and scale – like in appearance. The older leaves are borne in pairs or whorls of three and are rounded at the tip, I noticed, while examining older junipers around the house and in the washes. The arrangement of the adult leaves in a circular pattern gives the twigs and uncanny resemblance to coral.

Although juniper and cedar are related – both belong to the cypress family – cedars produce small woody cones like the white cedar I have in my yard at home (my  northern winter solstice tree), while junipers produce a bluish berry –like cone. Junipers bear both male and female cones although the female cones look like highly polished blueberries and take two to three years to ripen. Most junipers are dioecious, meaning that male and female cones are found on separate trees and once you observe the difference it is easy to differentiate between the two. The male cones are brownish in appearance and very small. These latter produce pollen sacs that release pollen grains in spring and summer. As the trees age some of the trunks become twisted and gnarled (no one knows why). Stout single trunks or multiple stems originating from the ground are the most common forms the trees exhibit.

Junipers are one of the top ten plants for wildlife. Many birds love their berries and around here the Cedar waxwings, Townsend solitaires, Scaled quail, and American robins flock to the sprawling juniper cluster (one tree, many small trunks) that shades the ground outside my back door. Last fall the branches were loaded with ripe berries and now they are scattered everywhere on the ground beneath the juniper. I also see Dark Eyed juncos, Canyon towhees, and House finches scratching the ground under the tree. I sometimes see the thrasher with his curved beak hopping around. Does he eat the berries too? Collared doves, the Pinion jays, Magpies, and Western bluebirds gather in these trees for protection from hawk predation. And now that winter winds are fierce and deadly, birds of all kinds seek protection from the bitter cold in the junipers’ thick branches.

What I love best about junipers is that most of them get to live out their natural lifespan of a few hundred to a few thousand years of age. In Maine our mature (a tree is now considered mature at 20 – 30 years old) trees are logged and great swathes of raped mountain forest surround me on all sides. My guess is that the next generation of Maine children will not know what an old tree looks like.

Coming to Abiquiu for the winter has given me a reprieve from my grief around ongoing tree slaughter. I notice that most folks around here don’t pay much attention to junipers except to think of them as trees that are used for fuel, while I am almost obsessed by them, their colors and shapes, their thickening (sometimes) reddish stringy trunks, the way they can endure the effects of wild winds, and the tenacity with which they cling to cliff edges, or bend over washes with their roots exposed, inhabiting places where nothing else can grow. And it is also true that they can be a “pioneer” species since they most definitely thrive in poor soil. To survive in dry climates, like the high desert I am living in, junipers have long taproots and extensive lateral root systems that can efficiently obtain moisture where none seems to exist. I think junipers are heroic!

I tried to identify the species of my little juniper and reached the conclusion that she was probably a Utah juniper (Juniperus utahenis) because this species is the most common in the mountains of the southwest and northern New Mexico growing at elevations of 3000 – to 8000 feet. Together with the pinion pine these two comprise most of the trees in this area and are common on our mesa tops and ridges. Adult junipers define the landscape with their glacial growth, half dead half alive appearance and fragrant aroma. Because of their intolerance to shade they are always spaced apart.

These hearty trees have been used by pueblo people for millennium for firewood, building material, roof poles or vigas, as a food, and medicinal source. The fibrous bark can be woven into sandals or substituted for tobacco. Leaves and berries were/are collected and brewed to make herbal teas to treat colds, headaches, and stomach ailments. Even the hard seed shells discarded by ground squirrels provided a source of beads that were sown into clothing.

Junipers have a potent anti-viral compound – deoxypodophyllotoxin (DPT) – which as been shown to be effective against viruses that cause flu and herpes. Today, when the overuse of antibiotics has made us resistant to treatment we need to think about using natural alternatives. Juniper is certainly one possibility.

Juniper is probably most well known for its berries that produce the distinctive bitter flavoring in gin (ugh).

Juniper is used in Earth-based rituals that call for the literal manifestation of some kind energy and/or information. It is also used as an incense to welcome new animals into one’s home. As a smudge it is used for purification as it puts negative ions back into the air much like balsam or sage does. For long-term protection, a sprig of juniper is hung over doorways.

Last summer I brought in bouquets of juniper branches to scent the house, and to express my gratitude for living in a place where these old trees thrived. On hot days a sweet pungent aroma wafted through the air and my dove Lily B would fly down to the table, pull off bunches of berries and roll them across the stone floor! Outside I continued to care for the little juniper…

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When I first read that the juniper tree was a symbol for the goddess Astarte, I was amazed. How many times have I discovered after falling in love with a particular kind of tree that she first belonged to a goddess? The ancient Phoenician Astarte is one of the oldest Middle Eastern goddess’s dating back to the Neolithic period (5-8000 BCE) and the Bronze Age. According to legend Astarte descended to earth as a fiery star. She was also associated with the moon. A celestial goddess, she was a bringer of life.

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Last evening when I was walking home from a party I was stunned by the clarity of the starry firmament over my head. I immediately thought of Astarte as a star goddess because this was her realm, and yet, when I passed the little juniper I thought of this same goddess as a tree rooted securely in the ground. With the winter solstice just four days away it seemed fitting that both sky and earth were included in this turning of the wheel as aspects of Astarte who (I imagined) fell to earth and was shining her light through the thick branches of a prickly young juniper tree, a tree that loved and held her tight. So ends my story of what happens on this Winter Solstice Night.

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4 thoughts on “The Juniper Tree

  1. My goodness, thank you for all the information on the “heroic” Juniper! Wonderful! When you said “Coming to Abiquiu for the winter has given me a reprieve from my grief around ongoing tree slaughter” it reminded me that I once quit a good job I had working at a law firm primarily because the attorney I supported worked for the big paper companies and I found myself nearly unable to type his documents that promoted clear-cutting…and I was in a terrible state one time (both of these experiences were in Maine) when the county widened the road that ran by our house out in the country and cut down many huge old pines (and that tree company then solicited many of our neighbors to cutting a lot of their trees) — I told them if they stepped one foot on my property I would be out there screaming at them. It all upset me more than I ever thought possible.

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    1. Oh, I have been there too many times, and I left a home because they bulldozed the road by my house that went nowhere killing lady slippers, blackberry bushes and many young saplings. I felt the tree carnage in my gut.For those of us who can feel the grief it is nearly intolerable.

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