Our Amazing Junipers

(Author’s Guardian Juniper Tree)

 

Tomorrow we are supposed to have the first freezing temperatures and I am watering my adopted juniper, the first tree species that I fell in love with when I came to Abiquiu, because of its fantastic myriad of shapes, its tenacious ability to cling to cliff edges and because so many of these trees are allowed to live out their natural lifespans of a few hundred to a thousand years or more. Now my love and amazement for these drought resistant trees has deepened into genuine concern because this summer’s drought has turned clumps of needles brown on most of the junipers on the mesas and many appear to be dying unnaturally (very old trees do have a strange half dead look that is normal). Anyone with eyes can see how dis – stressed these trees are.

 

Water is Life. Here in the river valley, including the Bosque there are fewer dead patches but little or no new growth on the junipers. A few days ago I took a tape measure to measure new spikes on the solitary juniper that I water, noting that most fronds had bright blue green spires measuring twelve inches or more. Although I am happy for my tree I am also frightened because it is clear that we are now living the ravages of climate change and most of the junipers around here have little or no new growth and are not doing well.

 

Western junipers are an “indicator species.” If they are showing signs of stress from lack of water then other less resilient trees are even more threatened. Not to take heed of this juniper tree warning would be a grave mistake. For me, the upside of this knowing has validated my belief that I must stay with native flowering plants and because of what the junipers are saying instead of planting fruit and other trees I am going to choose more junipers. Fortunately, there are many beautiful cultivars to choose from. My neighbor Bruce has a gorgeous blue green gray green teardrop shaped juniper that is definitely on my list. It even has a huge bird’s nest hidden within its boughs.

 

Western junipers are dimorphic, meaning that they have two growth forms. One is upright (like my tree), 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 especially bear bluish green awl shaped leaves that are pointed at the tip. 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. 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 while junipers produce a bluish berry –like cone. 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 (to make things confusing some junipers have both male and female cones on one tree). The male cones are brownish in appearance and very small. These latter produce pollen sacs that release pollen grains in spring and summer, as many people that suffer from allergies know. The female cones look like berries. As the trees age some of the trunks become twisted and gnarled.

 

Junipers are one of the top ten plants for wildlife. Many birds love their berries and around here the Cedar waxwings, the Townsend solitaire, and American robins flock to the juniper cluster that shades the ground. I also see Dark Eyed juncos, Canyon towhees, and House finches scratching the ground under the tree. Collared doves, Pinion jays, Magpies, sparrows, and Western bluebirds to mention a few, gather in these trees for protection from hawk predation. And when winter winds are fierce and deadly, birds of all kinds seek protection from the bitter cold in the junipers’ thick branches.

 

To survive in dry climates, western junipers have long taproots and extensive lateral root systems that can efficiently obtain moisture where none seems to exist. They are intolerant of shade, so if you are going to plant some give them space and lots of sun.

 

Of particular interest to us during climate change is the way Junipers use water. Rain falling on a juniper canopy is partially intercepted by the foliage, branches, and trunk (this of course is also true for other trees but less so if their canopies are not dense). In brief storms like the few we had this summer much of the intercepted moisture evaporated and did not reach the ground so the tree roots were never watered. Wind has a negative impact during storms also lessening the possibility of the trees’ ability to absorb moisture and we had wind with every brief rain.

Transpiration nourishes the trees and is the process by which water is carried from roots and trunks to the small pores on the underside of leaves, where it changes to vapor and is released to the atmosphere. Transpiration cannot occur in soil that is devoid of moisture so without rain or during brief deluges most of the water becomes run off and even the lateral roots of Junipers (and other trees if they have them) receive little or no water. Transpiration ceases as the Junipers try to conserve what water they already have. In Abiquiu all of our un -watered Junipers (as well as other trees) have been literally starving for water. It is no wonder leaves/ needles withered turned brown and dropped to the ground.

 

Now that it is October and we are getting the first real rain of the year we need to hope that the air temperatures stay mild enough to keep transpiration occurring. Soil water uptake is reduced when the soil temperature is below 50 degrees. If air temperatures are near or below freezing, then very little or no transpiration occurs at all.

 

Adult junipers define our unique landscape with their glacial growth and fragrant aroma. These trees are active during much of the year, and are able to absorb spring runoff to begin transpiration. They are also able to take advantage of soil nutrients long before other trees are awake, making junipers the ideal tree to plant in times of unwelcome planetary change.

Matriarchs of the Bosque

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Every morning I walk down to the river’s edge to watch the sunrise. In late April the sky and trees are buzzing with hummingbirds, the mournful cooing of white winged doves, and the trilling of red winged blackbirds. As I wait for that pinpoint of light to blossom into a golden orb I look to the gnarled trunks of cottonwood trees (Populus delitoides wislizenii) that stand out against a background of blue slate marveling at the shapes, size, and trunk texture of such magnificent rapidly growing shade trees, trees that I have come to love so much, now drooping with male and female russet catkins (each on separate trees). I think about the heart shaped leaves that will soon grace bare branches rustling in the slightest breeze and the birds and small animals that will find safety under the massive canopies of these (egalitarian) Matriarchs of the Bosque. And I think about their future…

 

The Rio Grande Bosque is a system of wetlands, oxbow lakes, sandbars and woodlands that supports the growth of cottonwoods and willows, one of the most critically endangered habitats in the world. Seasonal flooding once cleared debris and enriched the soil allowing new seedlings to germinate, but over the last century large scale agriculture, irrigation systems, livestock grazing and logging have created soil erosion and extremes in flooding. Dams were built to control floods and wetlands were drained.

 

Mature cottonwoods have roots that can reach down to the water table, but young cottonwoods cannot germinate or grow unless they have enough water available to them near the surface.

 

The cottonwoods I love are “elders” but young cottonwoods are scarce or completely absent except in a few locations near the river (my friend Iren’s Bosque is a small but healthy ecosystem that is flourishing with the next generation of cottonwoods but this riparian area still floods in the spring). Whenever I gaze up or sit under one of these magnificent trees that are dressed in such golden splendor in the fall, I wonder how many people are aware of the fact that these gracious matriarchs will disappear from the landscape within less than a century even without assistance from climate change.

 

This year severe drought has added another layer of distress to an already critical cottonwood situation. All trees have access to food through their complex underground root systems and their relationship with certain fungi but trees cannot deal with ongoing thirst.

 

Groundbreaking scientific tree/plant research indicates that when trees are threatened with lack of water, food production and growth cease. The trees that suffer the most are the ones like cottonwoods that grow in soils where moisture is most abundant. Deeply distressed thirsty trees send vibrations through their trunks when the flow of water from the roots to the leaves is interrupted. These vibrations could be understood as cries of thirst, a sobering thought for anyone who loves cottonwood trees (or any tree for that matter) and sees them as sentient beings as I certainly do.