Wednesday, January 10, 2007


I was planning to write about one evergreen every week during the Winter and thought I'd start with the most ubiquitous evergreen in my neighborhood: the juniper.

Every old apartment building and many of the older homes in my neighborhood are surrounded by these scraggly, prickly bushes. Mine is no exception. For years, I plotted with my neighbors to tear them out, but none of us ever had enough nerve to tackle the job. Junipers are painfully prickly and that's what they're good for: protection. Then just a few months ago, the apartment building handyman pruned them back severely and suddenly they look like bonsai (in fact, juniper is the preferred bonsai plant). They're actually quite beautiful.

So now that I've come to appreciate them, I wanted to be able to identify them. And here, I ran into trouble again. All junipers are members of the Cypress family. They are all evergreens with scale-like leaves. In fact, if you look at a juniper branch closely, you will see that it seems very primitive, like the horsetail, with its overlapping scales.

According to Wikipedia, which has some wonderful photographs of junipers,
there are between 50 and 67 varieties of junipers. The ones in front of my apartment
building are probably Chinese junipers, which seem to have been the favorite hedge plants many years ago. I know my father planted some around my childhood home in the Fifties, but the ones in my neighborhood are mostly in front of buildings that go back to 1905 and 1910, so who knows how old they are?

Chinese junipers have juvenile shoots that are spiky and as sharp as needles. The mature shoots have rounded tips, and some of the ones in my neighborhood are showing hints of yellow male flowers at the tips. Winter is when they typically flower; they throw their pollen in spring. My tree identification book says that Chinese junipers have a sour, resinous, catty scent. Another reason for my positive identification. I took some snippets of juniper to work with me and when I opened the envelope in which I had placed them, the scent was distinctly catbox.

But what of all the other juniper-like trees in my neighborhood? I found some wonderful trees outside the Safeway at John and 15th. They are twisted into marvelous shapes and peppered with the bluish berries that I think of as juniper berries, those berries that give the distinctive flavor to gin. If I felt confident they hadn't been sprayed (I'm not), I could gather them and use them to make schnapps using this recipe from my favorite schnapps website:

My tree book tries to distinguish between the different varieties of junipers, cypresses, cedars and thujas (all members of the Cypress family), all of which have similar foliage, by describing the scent of the leaves when crushed. So now I am wandering around my neighborhood pinching juniper leaves and sniffing them.

Does it smell like turpentine? Then it may be an incense cedar or a Nootka cypress (which will also be harsh to the touch when rubbed the wrong way)
A warm sweet scent like pencils? That would be a Hinoki cedar
A warm gingery scent? White cedar
Scent of old seaweed? Formosan cypress
Lemony? Monterey cypress
Rich scent of thyme and lemons? Gowen cypress
Grapefruit? Smooth Arizona cypress
No distinctive scent? Italian cypress or Mexican cypress
An aroma like new-mown grass? Bhutan cypress
Apples? Common juniper
Paint or kitchen soap? Pencil cedar or drooping juniper (which will also rustle in the hand)
Pineapple? Western red cedar
Rich fruit cake with plenty of almonds and a trace of lemons? Korean thuja
Glorious scent of lemon and eucalyptus? Japanese thuja

And I think I did find one of these, right next to the berry-bearing junipers outside Safeway.
I'm still looking for ones that smell like fruit cake, almonds and lemons. I will continue to do research and let you know what I find out. I am becoming enamored of these prickly plants, especially now that I am paying attention to their scent.

Mitchell, Alan, The Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, Collins 1982

Photograph of juniper from the Danish Schnapps web site:

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