The Utah juniper tree is a hardy thing. Growing alongside pinyon trees, it makes up one-half of what’s known as a “pj” forest, or a pinyon-juniper forest found at certain elevations (roughly 5,000-8,000 feet) in arid climates. Seems the juniper tree can live up to 650 years, which I find rather impressive. They usually don’t get very big, considering how little water is available in their chosen climate. Often they’re also called “cedar” trees, although they bear no relation to the fragrant scent of real cedar. The name is a misnomer from when settlers confused the Utah juniper with the cedar trees they knew from back east.
Sometimes as I wander through pj forests around my home, I wonder how old the junipers are and what they’ve been mute witness to. Were they around when the Spanish Trail was in regular use? Did a Fremont Indian camp out beneath this one, or use the soft reddish bark of that one to start a small cook fire?
The juniper berry (which is actually a female cone, or so I quote the information I’ve read–I’m no botanist) is a greyish-blue creation, small and firm and very decorative. When a juniper is in full “berry” bloom, the trees are quite pretty. When the berries dry up, they’re small and brown and hard. In this state they’re known as “ghost beads,” based on the beliefs of people ancient and modern that they kept away spirits if worn when living people enter old ruins or other places a less-than-pleased ghost might be hanging about. They also make great necklaces or bracelets, especially when combined with pieces of jewelry such as metal or rock. My friend Donna Sall makes gorgeous jewelry out of natural items, and sometimes utilizes dried juniper berries in her Prehistoric Artwear designs.
Note: the berries don’t really taste good if you decide to just crunch down on one. Forewarned is forearmed. However, they’ve been used for centuries as flavoring for drinks and food; gin is probably the most well known.