Juniper, the Southwest Tree of Life

by Jessa Fisher and Phyllis Hogan, AERA

Last month we talked about a semi-parasitic plant, mistletoe, of which there are over 200 species growing in over 30 different host trees. This month we will talk about one of those host trees, juniper. If you have spent any time in the Southwest you have most likely seen this gorgeous evergreen tree, often growing in large populations over several acres of land. Just because it is common, though, juniper is no tree to take for granted.

The genus name for juniper is Juniperus. It is in the cypress plant family, along with redwoods, giant sequoias, and Arizona cypress. Plants in this ancient family are conifers, or gymnosperms, meaning they don’t flower for reproduction but instead produce “naked cones.” All junipers have scaly leaves and bluish “berries”, which are actually the female cone. We have several species in our area, each with a distinguishing characteristic. Common juniper is a low growing shrub found in higher elevations. Alligator juniper has checkered bark. Rocky Mountain Juniper has thin needles on weeping branches. Utah juniper has one trunk and two seeds in the berry. One-seed juniper has smaller berries and many trunks. Red berry juniper has bright pink berries and grows in the Verde Valley. One of the best places to learn your junipers is Walnut Canyon National Monument, where four of the species are on the main trail marked by signs with their names for identification. On Highway 89 north to Wupatki National Monument, you can view a typical juniper woodland, which is actually encroaching on the pre-settlement grassland that is more favorable to the skittish pronghorn antelope.

Junipers are found all over the world and have been used as a building material, medicine, and food since ancient times. Sometimes juniper is called cedar, most notably red cedar, which is an eastern US species known for its aromatic, moth-repellant wood. In the Southwest, juniper wood is the preferred building material of Navajos for hogans and sweat lodges. Medicinally, a tea of the leaf and berry can be drunk for fungal and bacterial infections, arthritis, gas, and gout. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians used juniper tea to ward off infection. Juniper has a very pungent essential oil, which makes the plant useful for urinary tract infections. It is important, though, to never use it if you are pregnant, if there is acute kidney inflammation, or for more than five days at a time. It is best to use juniper in conjunction with other herbs. One plant, which can be found growing under junipers, is globemallow, a soothing demulcent herb to take with juniper for burning infection.

As a food, the ash from the juniper is added to a traditional Hopi blue corn bread, “piki”, to act as a natural lye which makes the nutrients from corn more absorbable by the body. Navajos also use the ash in a thick syrup for cough and sore throat. The berries make a wonderful addition to an elk roast or fish. A European use for the berries of common juniper developed as the flavoring for the alcoholic beverage gin.

The most fascinating use of juniper is for spiritual purposes. This tree is grounding, anchoring us all to the Colorado Plateau, yet also is etheric, acting as a bridge between the worlds. After childbirth, Hopi women wash their babies in juniper water, and it is also used as a wash after someone has died. The pollen, which is released in late winter, causing many people to suffer from allergies, is used in Navajo ceremony. A wonderful tradition, still alive today, is the making of juniper bead necklaces. Navajo women painstakingly collect and drill holes in the seeds, making lovely necklaces, plain or with colored seed beads. Babies and people of all ages wear these necklaces for protection on their life journeys.

As herbalists, our most important use of juniper is as a daily purification smudge, which you can experience if you come into Winter Sun Trading Company in downtown Flagstaff. Many customers come into the shop and comment on the smell. Most people love it. Some people remark that they haven’t smelled anything like that since their party days in college!!?!! Often, Navajo children who come in like the smell because it reminds them of their grandma’s Hogan.

You can collect your own juniper for smudging. After making an offering, harvest small tips of branches of juniper and let them dry. Every day, say your prayers and burn a small amount in an abalone shell, letting the wonderful smell of smoke fill the air, opening the window to release any negative energy. This is an ancient tradition, which helps to bring all of our prayers up to the heavens. At night, you can do the same thing to say goodnight to the moon, and say thanks for another blessed day on earth. Then you too can know why magical juniper is the Tree of Life.

ENDING STATEMENT: The Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA) is a non-profit organization founded in 1983 to investigate, document, and promote the use of traditionally utilized plants of the Southwest and to aid in preserving this knowledge for future generations. Phyllis Hogan is the director of the AERA and Jessa Fisher is the herbarium curator. www.azethnobotany.org