April 5, 2012 at 1:54 PM

Junipers, Ugh

"Junipers are tough plants, well adapted to this beautiful, arid place"

By Karen Denison

At Home Outdoors

Karen Denison is owner of Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing guide service, a former biologist, and a shameless admirer of the outdoors.

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As I sit with Kleenex box and decongestants at hand this morning, junipers are not on my list of favorite things.  Itchy eyes, sniffling and general lethargy probably will last another couple of weeks.  And of course I'm not alone--the misery of juniper pollen allergy is something I see on many faces at this time of year.

However, before I indulge a fantasy where I cry "death to all junipers!" and they magically disappear, in all fairness I must recall their fundamental place in the local ecology.  Junipers are tough plants, well adapted to this beautiful, arid place.

(1) Junipers provide food and shelter to many local creatures.  Juniper "berries"  are actually weirdly modified cones--this is a conifer, after all.  But the juicy berries come ripe in late fall, at a time when most other foods are disappearing.  They also remain on the tree for an extended time where they neither rot nor fall to the ground and are lost.  Coyote poop is often chock-a-block with juniper seeds in fall.  Bluebirds and other thrushes flock to good berry producing areas throughout the winter to tide them over when their summer diet of insects disappears.  Cottontails and jackrabbits (among others) shelter under their branches.  If my juniper-absent fantasy were true, then other creatures would disappear as well.

(2) Junipers make lots of natural chemicals to ward off pests.  Juniper wood and bark contains lots of natural compounds like terpenes that help deter bugs, fungus and other nasties.  Old juniper wood fenceposts attest to the effectiveness.  Junipers defend themselves very well, but don't go out and declare war over the whole countryside (unless you count allergy sufferers).

(3)  They don't waste energy trying to grow when it's a bad year.  It's common knowledge that you can tell the age of a tree by counting the rings of the trunk.  It works for most trees as they lay down one "ring" per growing season in temperate climates.  But junipers when faced by a bad year (usually water-related), respond by saying "no."  So if you count their rings, you're only learning about good years.  Perhaps I should emulate that more myself....

So I'll try to keep reminding myself that it's not the plant that is the problem, but my own over-reactive response that I should address.  Junipers belong here.

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