One of my favorite native trees in the Tehachapi Mountains is also one of the smallest: the California Juniper (Juniperus californica).
Junipers actually blur the distinction between tree and shrub — a juniper might develop a main trunk and reach 30 feet tall, or it might grow as a dense clump of competing trunks and still be a shrub after 100 years.
Junipers are easy to identify with their short, rounded olive-green needles with overlapping scales, the fragrant aroma of their foliage, and the bluish-lavender berries that decorate the trees like tiny Christmas ornaments.
The clean, pungent smell of crushed juniper needles is enveloping and distinctive — this is one tree you can identify with your eyes closed. For me, the scent immediately awakens memories of the rocky, arid landscapes where this hardy little tree slowly measures the passage of time.
Historically, humans have been more interested in the berries than the foliage: they are one of the main flavorings in gin. The name gin, in fact, is derived from jenever, the Dutch word for juniper.
The Dutch invented gin, but it was the English working classes of the 1700s who most enthusiastically embraced the juniper-flavored drink. Its popularity has risen and fallen and risen again over the centuries.
Long before juniper berries found their way into a bottle, they were used by Native Americans as a flavoring in food. They were also used medicinally as a diuretic, and poultices of steaming hot juniper boughs were tied against sore limbs to ease aching muscles and sprains.
The Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Southern Paiute) word for juniper is wa'adübü, pronounced wa-a-DUB-uh, and local Native people harvested the berries around August and boiled them, or removed the seeds and made a kind of meal that could be moistened and formed into cakes that after drying would keep indefinitely.
The Nuwä also made bows, either plain or sinew-backed, from the strong, resilient wood of junipers, as well as some other items like cooking tools for stirring and ladles. Juniper branches and limbs that had died naturally were also harvested for cooking fires.
I find the fresh berries to be not very berry-like, and quite resinous and strong tasting, but boiling, drying and other methods of processing improves their flavor.
Juniper berries, which tend to have a thin dusting of pale powder on them until fully ripe, remain an important food source for a number of animals and birds. Locally, black bears and coyotes seem to consume more juniper berries than most other mammals. During the late fall and winter, you can often find bear and coyote scat that consists almost entirely of the hard seed cases and occasional undigested berry of the California Juniper.
Woodrats also collect and feed on juniper berries, and I have encountered their little storage caches in among the boulders at Tomo Kahni State Historic Park. The seeds, with their hard outer case, have been used as beads by Native Californians for many centuries.
Because of their slow growth and small size, junipers have not been utilized much for their wood with one notable exception: fence posts. The West still contains hundreds of miles of barbed wire suspended from twisting, curving, durable juniper fence posts. Once cured, a juniper fence post will last for many decades without any treatment.
Unfortunately, the junipers grow so slowly that any large-scale harvest decimates them — and it seems like wasteful extravagance to cut down junipers that were alive when Theodore Roosevelt was president simply for the sake of fence posts.
The densest stands of California Juniper in our area are mostly to be found to the east: in Sand Canyon, Cameron Canyon, Oak Creek Pass, Old West Ranch, etc. However, there are more solitary specimens growing in other locations, like the slopes between here and Keene.
They are not massive or towering and are considered to have little economic value, but junipers remain one of my favorite trees, particularly when hiking. Sit in the shade beneath one on a warm spring day, rolling a juniper sprig around in your fingers as you breathe in their cedary, wood-smoke and rosemary aroma, and you might understand why. . .
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.