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The Cone-bearing Trees of Yosemite (1939) by James E. Cole


WESTERN JUNIPER

Juniperus occidentalis Hooker.

Western Juniper, Juniperus occidentalis
[click to enlarge]
Unlike other conifers, Western Junipers prefer solitude and seek out the desolate wind-swept granite slopes. Here they live detached, not only from other species, but from others of their own kind. They share with White-bark Pines the desire for the seclusion to be found on bleak heights with winter storms for company and granite crevices for homes. In such inhospitable habitations, junipers develop grotesque shapes, becoming picturesque to a degree found in no other Yosemite tree. Their stocky, gnarled trunks are widely buttressed at the base with long, exposed roots clinging tenaciously in serpentine fashion to small cracks. They seldom attain any great height, being dismantled by snow avalanches and lightning or pruned by the fierce winds of winter. The branches are frequently dead on the side exposed to storms but flourishing on the other side where they stand out horizontally or droop slightly like arms reaching for support.

Although their existence is constantly threatened, many junipers by clinging pertinaciously to the bare granite, succeed to great age. John Muir devoted much time to determining their ages but without complete success because of the dry rot which honeycombs the centers of old trees. He counted 1140 annual rings in one stump less than three feet in diameter, and came to the conclusion that some of the largest specimens had been living for 2000 years or more. Recently Mr. Waldo S. Glock*, while studying junipers a short distance north of Yosemite National Park, decided that, “as a species the Western juniper ranks well above its common associates in the matter of longevity. Trees five and six feet in diameter are not at all uncommon and those from which core samples were taken gave evidence of being between 900 and 1000 years old. The longevity of the species certainly equals that of the Coast Redwood and in few instances rivals that of the Giant Sequoia. Perhaps it is significant that the sequoia, the juniper and the bald cypress of Oaxaca, Mexico, all long-lived trees, belong to kindred families.” The largest juniper found by Clock in this region has a diameter of fourteen feet at five feet above the ground, and was computed to be 2900 years old. No Western Juniper in Yosemite can equal the size of this old Bennett Juniper, although many venerable trees are found eight feet in diameter. The maximum height of Yosemite junipers tha‘ grow on the sterile granites is normally about thirty feet, although trees twice as high are occasionally found growing on fertile well watered soil.

The bark of these old trunks is a light cinnamon-brown with elongated flat ridges connected at long intervals by narrower diagonal strips. It tears off in thin lustrous ribbons, and is seldom over one and one-fourth inch thick. The rather dense gray-green foliage when inspected, is seen to consist of small scale-like leaves closely appressed to the stiff twigs. The leaves overlap one another in such a manner as to form six longitudinal rows. In this respect they differ from the Incense Cedar in which the closely oppressed leaves are in whorls of four.

When in fruit, Western Junipers are quickly recognized. Instead of bearing a woody cone like all other Yosemite conifers, except the California Nutmeg, junipers produce berries which are really modified cones. When ripe they are about one-fourth inch in diameter, bluish-black and are covered with a whitish bloom. The sweet resinous flesh, surrounding the two rather large seeds, is relished by animals and was formerly eaten by the Indians.

Although principally a high mountain tree of rocky places, a few Western Junipers are found in and near Yosemite Valley. One may be seen on the floor of the valley in Camp 16 [Editor’s note: Housekeeping Camp—dea] , and others are encountered after a short hike to the top of Nevada Fall. Several may be seen growing at the brink of Bridalveil Fall. Probably the most accessible “forest” is to be found on the bare granite walls along the Tioga Road just beyond Lake Tenaya. There they combat winter gales and assume their characteristic picturesque forms most adequately expressed by the phrase “rocky steadfastness.”

The Dwarf Juniper (Juniperus cornmunis) has also been found in Yosemite, but since it is half-prostrate and shrub-like, seldom as much as two feet high, it is not to be ranked or considered as a Yosemite tree. Growing in the remote high elevations in the northern part of the park, few visitors will ever find it, or need to know that it has, instead of scale-like leaves common to the genus, fairly long, needle-like leaves.


*Glock, Waldo S. Observations on the Western Junipers, Madrona, January, 1937, Vol. IV, No. 1, pp. 21-28.



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