Juniper (Juniperus communis)

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Common juniper is an evergreen conifer native to the UK, Europe and much of the northern hemisphere.

Common name: juniper, common juniper

Scientific name: Juniperus communis
Family: Cupressaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: juniper's stems are fragrant throughout.

What does juniper look like? 

Overview: mature trees can reach a height of 10m and live for up to 200 years. Its bark is grey-brown and peels with age, and its twigs are reddish brown. Juniper populations in the UK are shrinking, and the species is a priority under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Leaves: the small, needle-like leaves are green with broad silver bands on the inner side, curving slightly to a sharp, prickly point.

Flowers: common juniper is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Male flowers are small, yellow and globular, and grow in leaf axils near the tips of twigs. 

Fruits: once pollinated by wind, the green female flowers develop into fleshy, purple, aromatic, berry-like cones. These are eaten and distributed by birds.

Look out for: needles have a single pale band on the upper surface and are grey-green beneath. They are found in threes around the ridged twigs. The female cones look like blue 'berries'.

Could be confused with: unlikely to be confused with anything.

Identified in winter by: needles are present year round. Twigs are ridged.

Where to find juniper

It thrives on chalk downland, moorland, in rocky areas and old native pine woodland. Common juniper is most often found as a low-growing, spreading shrub or small tree.

Value to wildlife

Common juniper provides dense cover for nesting birds such as the goldcrest and firecrest and, in northern upland areas, the black grouse. It is the food plant for caterpillars of many species of moth, including the juniper carpet moth, juniper pug and chestnut-coloured carpet, and a number of birds eat the berries, including the fieldfare, song thrush, mistle thrush and the ring ouzel. 

Mythology and symbolism

In some areas juniper is considered to be a deterrent against the devil and witches. It was hung over doorways on the eve of May day and burnt on Halloween to ward off evil spirits. It was said that you would prosper if you dreamed of gathering juniper berries in winter, and the berries themselves signified honour or the birth of a boy.

How we use juniper

The most famous use of juniper berries is in the flavouring of gin. They have also recently become a popular ingredient in liqueurs and sauces.

The aromatic wood has a warm sandy golden colour, and is used for wood turning and carving, as well as burning to smoke food.

The berries produce an oil, which can be used to aid respiratory and digestive problems, and was once considered a good method to terminate a pregnancy.

Threats

Juniper has been declining throughout the UK in range and abundance. It is not known exactly why it is declining, but it appears that the plants are unable to regenerate successfully - this problem is partially attributed to browsing of foliage by deer and rabbits. Juniper may also be affected by Phytophthora root rot and has recently been found to be susceptible to Phytophthora austrocedrae, a fungus-like organism which infects the plant via the roots and causes foliage to decline and eventually die.

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