JUST ONE: Seaside juniper

This is a joyfully biased tribute to a particular species of tree, the Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima). Also called the Puget Sound juniper, this rare evergreen has a very limited range, a range that happens to include one of my favorite places, Washington Park on Fidalgo Island. I wrote about the park a few weeks ago and the first photo in the post shows a Seaside juniper at sunset.

Western science recognized this tree as a separate species only twelve years ago. In December 2007 a paper was published that described why trees then known as Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopularum) growing on and around the San Juan Islands, are actually a different species of juniper. DNA, chemical compounds, plant structure and ecology were all taken into account in determining that “my” juniper differs substantially from its Rocky Mountain cousins. Exactly how the two species diverged isn’t known for sure but (if I understand correctly) it’s theorized that juniper trees may have persisted locally through the last glaciation, near the edge of the glacier, in the present-day Olympic Mountains. Some are still found on the eastern (drier) side of the Olympics. During a warmer period between 7000 and 500BC, it is thought that the trees may have spread to rocky, thin-soiled islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S.) and the Strait of Georgia (Canada). What is now called the Seaside juniper is found mainly in these water-influenced locations, with a few outliers in the nearby mountains.

One way or another this rather odd tree has maintained its hard-scrabble existence in very tough places for millennia. Individual trees can be quite long-lived – a study found that one tree in Washington Park (#13 below) is close to 300 years old. I was drawn to these striking trees well before I learned how rare they are and naturally, learning about them makes them even more compelling.

But in the end it’s the aesthetic characteristics that keep me coming back to these junipers. And something about standing under one of these twisted old beings, dry, pungent-smelling, tough and graceful, is profoundly nourishing to the spirit. I try to honor the tree here as well as I can, knowing that I will fall short of truly understanding this tree, even as I stand under it.

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1. A grove of Seaside juniper trees on an exposed, south-facing site.

2. Nearby, the skeleton of a Seaside juniper graces the view of Burrows Pass and Burrows Bay.
3. Under this old juniper skeleton are grasses and lichens that can tolerate thin, rather poor soil. Around the tree are more junipers and Douglas firs, which also do well in less-than-perfect conditions.

4. Another old juniper skeleton, partly fire-damaged. Photo #12 below shows the sawed-off limbs on the right.
5. This tree demonstrates comfort in the precarious environment where junipers are at home. You can almost feel the wind coming off the water. Four-legged creatures (like the doe in photo #24) have no trouble navigating the steep slopes – but I have to very careful here.

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What luck that one of the most “robust populations” of Seaside junipers is in this park, where they’re protected. There are hundreds of Seaside junipers in Washington Park, but one in particular always gets the attention of visitors. It sits alone on a promontory where people typically stop and enjoy the view. Over the years countless photographs and selfies have been made here. Many initials and dates are carved in the wood and countless kids have climbed it’s branches. Mostly dead, it continues to feed itself against all odds, with one bushy green limb. The first time I visited the park I was awed by the beauty of this tree and I’ve returned again and again. One day I focused on the tree’s sinuous dead branches, creating a series of images posted here. On many occasions I’ve wandered the nearby juniper-dotted hillsides, peering at tiny blue berries, intricate gray-green lichens, tangled limbs, grand, furrowed trunks and sturdy, twisted roots. Sometimes I bring a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens that accentuates the junipers’ gracefulness (#7,8,9,14,18). Once, I slowly lurched this way and that way as I tracked my exact coordinates with a GPS app, trying to locate a tree documented in a paper as the oldest in the park. I know the junipers have much more to reveal, and it will come slowly.

6. The one that started it all for me on a December afternoon in 2017, the first time I visited the park.

7. Sunlit leaves

8. Waves
9. Feathers

10. Sprawl and reach

11. Tangle

12. Chop

13. Venerable….this may be the oldest juniper on Fidalgo Island. It’s probably almost 300 years old, predating the arrival of white settlers on the island.

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The Seaside juniper favors warmer, drier, south-facing grassy balds with relatively thin, poor soil on the edges of islands. With their ghostly gray, twisted forms, they lend a distinctive character to the south side of Washington Park. There is something admirable about these tough trees.

Juniper’s colors are subdued, like desert colors. The wood is dry, furrowed and coarse, except after it’s been dead a long time and is weathered smooth. Tiny blue berries grace branch tips and brighten the ground under the trees when they fall. The foliage is an intricate overlapping weave of fine scales, tough and dry, but fern-like in the way it filters light. I was surprised to learn that junipers have essentially two types of leaves – younger and older. Mature leaves are compressed and somewhat smooth; new leaves are spiky and sharp-pointed. This probably discourages deer browsing – young plants are easy for deer to reach so being armed with prickly leaves protects the tree, an adaptation that reminds me of the desert, where other juniper species grow.

14. Sometimes juniper bark grows in a criss-cross pattern, a phenomenon I’ve seen on other trees, too. I wonder what causes it.

15. A branch tip in November, when water is once again plentiful.
16. Older juniper branches host a wide variety of lichens and mosses.

17. The light at the edge of the island where the junipers grow is sometimes shot through with water-drenched color.

18. On the first day of Spring, even long-dead branches appear to celebrate gentler times ahead.

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Junipers are gymnosperms – plants without flowers. They bear seeds hidden inside cones, like pines, but juniper cones are very different. The scales are fused together into a fleshy but rather hard, berry-like structure that surrounds and protects the seed. What we call berries are actually the female cones. The male, pollen-bearing cones and female, berry-like cones are born on separate trees. It takes two to tango….

Juniper berries are used to flavor gin…I think I was losing you, but now I have your attention, right?

The juniper berries used in mixed drinks come from the Common juniper (J. communis). A few species of juniper have toxic berries, but I don’t think the Seaside juniper’s berries are poisonous – at least nothing happened to me after eating a few. They were bitter, astringent, and reminiscent of gin (which originated in the Netherlands, one of many places where Common junipers grow). I appreciated the intensely pungent flavor, though I admit I spat out the seeds and pulp. Juniper berries are traditionally used for seasoning game. There are plenty of deer, rabbits and even quail around here but hunting on the island is forbidden. I doubt I’ll be sampling venison with juniper berries anytime soon. Maybe we’ll try them in another recipe, or experiment (carefully) with medicinal applications.

20. I believe these are male (pollen) cones.

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A few more juniper facts: Junipers belong to the Cypress family (Cupressaceae) which includes cedars. There are about sixty species of junipers worldwide, depending on who’s counting, with about fifteen in North America. Most of America’s junipers are in the West. They’re well adapted to dry climates and poor soils. You may have seen beautiful old junipers in the desert or the mountains, where they can be found up to 10,000 ft. above sea level. Their characteristically twisted, half-dead look is emblematic of the western landscape.

America’s western junipers aren’t always appreciated because they invade grasslands, which cattle-owners don’t like. They’re not great for lumber but are often used for fence posts or fuel. Wild birds and animals feed on the foliage and seeds and the trees can provide nesting places for rodents. I’m not sure how much our juniper is used by local animals and birds but the trees must provide a modicum of shelter, and the berries are most likely eaten by some wildlife. I know that for this human, Seaside junipers provide deeply nourishing food for the spirit.

21. Well-rooted.

22. Another venerable, well-rooted juniper, living through another dry summer.
23. An impressive, if untidy, mature juniper with sprawling, multiple trunks and crossing branches.

24. This unusual, nearly prostrate Seaside juniper grows in sand dunes at Deception Pass State Park, where a small number of these trees can be found.

25. You may spot tiny pink wildflowers in this photo taken in May. By mid-summer they’ll be almost gone. The ground will be parched until the rains return.

26. At dusk, a doe listens to a boat passing through the channel below, just out of sight. This is where juniper lives, and thrives.

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(Previous “Just One” posts include the Sword fern, the Pacific Madrone tree and the Licorice fern).


71 comments

  1. Beautiful images of a tree that evokes our familiar Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei). Coincidentally, my next post involves that species (commonly called a cedar, or mountain cedar), albeit from a quite different perspective. The twisted trunks, the berries, and the branching of this one all are familiar, although my impression is that these seaside juniper are larger. They certainly are impressive. The tree in #6 is breathtaking, and it makes perfect sense to me that one glimpse of that one could lead to fascination with the species.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The junipers are wonderful trees, aren’t they? These do get pretty big…there’s one on another island – an uninhabited island – that’s 46″ diameter at breast height. Sounds impressive and I’d love to see it but I need a boat. There’s a Common juniper nearby (not far from the tree in the sand dunes – #24) that is prostrate so it appears smaller, but I have a feeling it’s quite old. I hope #6 will keep hanging on – it worries me when I see kids climbing in it, and all the initials – that drove me crazy at first. I suppose they could fence it off but I don’t like that idea. Thank you, Linda! Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That tree is intriguing because it seems that half the trunk is completely dead from a fire but behind it, the other half is unscathed. Or it regrew. I’m not sure. But I need to photograph it more, to show the two “sides” of it. Thank you, Graham. πŸ™‚

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  2. I understand how the phrasing “truly understanding this tree, even as I stand under it” will appeal to people fond of wordplay.

    The tangling branches in #11 are similar to those produced by the most common central Texas species, Juniperus ashei.

    How about that eccentric placement of the subject in #15, 18 and 26?

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    • I’m glad you noticed that, Steve (of course you did!). Junipers seem to have a lot in common. I can’t help wondering why they produce so many branches that interweave like that. The foliage tends to be a bit sparse – do they need more branches because of that?
      I do like to push things close to the edge sometimes. πŸ™‚ It’s all happening on the edges, you know? Environmentally, the rich places are where different habitats meet, not in the middle of them. Make sense? πŸ˜‰

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    • A bit text-heavy, this deep dive, so thank you, Jean. How exciting that you saw that tree – so you understand how that could ignite an obsession. It’s amazing that just to both sides of it there are many more, but people don’t wander too much through there. The park has lots of paths but people mostly stick to the road. Thanks again Jean, have a great week.

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  3. We have several similar relatives on the lakeshore near our cabin in Minnesota, and I love their graceful and whimsical branch formations. Yours are spectacular, Lynn; I’m especially drawn into your fourth and tenth.

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  4. Very interesting post dear Lynn! You did a lot of research here, wow. Actually I am not a big fan of Juniperus, at least not the one we have here. There is a Juniperus in the heathland which is quite typical for the landscape. It grows in a kind of pillar form. But after reading your post I am fascinated by this plant. I didn’t know that it can be found almost all over the world! So many nice varieties. Juniperus maritimus is awesome. Incredible these old giant trees with their fascinating growth. Like mythical creatures. I understand you very well how much you appreciate these trees. The wood is wonderful, I love this crisscross pattern of the bark. Probably for the stability. It must be in their DNA. Interesting the low growing forms in comparison to the big big trees! I searched for Wacholder here. It is described as a spiritual plant. I read that it was used for fumigation from native tribes in the US as well from people here in Europe, already from Germanic people and Celts. Very interesting. You really made me think πŸ™‚ I like all the pictures from the old trees (6, 10, 11, 13, 16) nr. 13 is great, the tender details, the curved wood, the one with moss and lichen!….beautiful. I have to admit: you changed my view on Juniperus. Now I can see it with different eyes. Thank you!

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    • Thank you for acknowledging the work, Almuth – it took many hours. πŸ™‚ I know the type of juniper you’re talking about, and the columnar shape doesn’t appeal to me either. I think that one has mean, prickly foliage, too. They are rather mythical in their contorted shapes. It’s wonderful to walk among them, also it’s nice because they like being near the water so if you’re with these junipers, you’re probably in a beautiful location already. Have you seen bark grow like that? I see it on other trees, too. Many interesting trees have histories of being used for sacred purposes, and often wherever they grow. The scent of the foliage (and probably the fresh wood) IS refreshing. There are medicinal uses too, as usual. Joe’s reading a book about the Druids right now. I don’t think there’s anything in it about junipers but he said it’s amazing how widespread that culture was geographically. Photo #13 was made with that in-camera filter we talked about before. It was hard to take photo #11 without getting trapped, or poked in the eye. πŸ™‚ I’m glad I have given you a new outlook on juniper trees. Thank you VERY much for sharing your reactions. That makes it worthwhile.

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      • While you mentioned the bark I had to think of the Berggarten and the identical photos we took: do you remember the one tree with the special bark? The way trees or plants grow is fascinating. Like the plants that make twines. They often change directions for more stability, right? How do they know?!? – I would like to smell Juniper. I am curious now πŸ™‚ There may be differences from tree to tree (the different kinds). I was impressed by Juniperus phoenicea too. The bark seems to be a bit similar to your Juniperus and the tree can grow really crazy.

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        • Do the trees change directions for more stability? I sure would like to know! That’s a very good theory. Have you read that trees do that?
          Maybe you can find a store with something juniper-scented – the dried berries are sold to use in cooking.
          I looked at images of J. phoenicia – the foliage is very similar but the berries are a different color. There were some photos of gorgeous, gorgeous old trees, wow. Some of our desert junipers can get like that. Do a search for Utah juniper – they look a lot like the Phoenicean juniper. Thanks for showing that one to me!

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        • I only know it from plants like Clematis or Vicia or other flowers. They change direction or better they turn around for some degrees. I am not sure if trees do that! Wow, the Utah Juniper is awesome. They look like persons, don’t they? I know the berries. Here they are often used for cabbage or Sauerkraut πŸ™‚ Some people have Juniperus in their front garden. Maybe…haha….

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    • A bit too full of info, and that’s just a portion of what I learned. It’s hard to practice restraint, you know? πŸ™‚ I’m glad it was hard for you to pick a favorite, though of course you needn’t do that. But it’s interesting to know which photos get to you. Thanks, Howard!

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  5. This is nice, to profile a particular kind of tree. Boy, it’s a tough, ropy-lookin’ hombre.
    But I can see why you like it.
    There’s juniper growing all over the old naval training station, now Samson State Park, on Seneca Lake (I have no idea why), and along the rocky ravines near Naples (south of Canandaigua Lake) but they’re more like scruffy shrubs, and don’t have this great bonsai look. They do smell great on a hot day, though I was always told to not chew on the berries. I think everybody calls them “red cedar” and never calls them junipers.
    Well I do like all the sinuous wood, definitely presents as a stripped-down survivor, and
    I particularly like #9 & #10, where you can see it’s also got some moves & likes to dance a bit.

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    • A tough hombre, yeah, I’d say it is. That’s one of the things I admire about it. The eastern junipers don’t get the beautiful shapes that some of the western ones do – I don’t know why. My friend Almuth in Germany said the juniper’s she’s familiar with have a columnar form, also not as interesting as these.
      Calling the trees cedar is common – and it’s funny, over here was have Western redcedars – a very different tree. Our common Douglas fir isn’t a fir, either.
      Your remark about dancing reminded me of a wonderful (though arcane and difficult) Buddhist sutra, Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi. Two lines, variously translated of course, appear towards the end: “When the wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing…” It’s a typically illogical zen phrase that one might grasp only intuitively. Those lines always appealed to me. I’d like to think you picked up on a subtle communication of that idea in those photos. Thank you, Robert, as always!

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    • I guess #2, 4 and 6 are all real survivors, which truly appeal to me. #9 has a look that I would think you would like. That darkness I’ve talked about before, which I feel I’ve learned to embrace through looking at some of your work. #18, well, I’m glad you pointed that one out. I think there’s a tenderness there. Sorry this post got so long and text-heavy….and I still have many more photos! Another time. πŸ™‚ Thanks!

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  6. This post is really a lesson about this species of cypress in all its characteristics and qualities.
    However, what I enjoyed most was the images and expressiveness of these trunks and the wonderful way you have to understand her personality, finding the perfect angles of capture.
    These trunks have “soul” and Lynn’s soul is in line with that of these junipers!
    Beautiful!

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  7. Interesting set. Nice textures, as always. I found the bark in #14 fascinating, but then it seems like the branches aren’t sure which directions they want to go either. I guess a successful tree keeps its options open.

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  8. A lovely tribute! I’ve always been drawn to these trees, though it’s hard to articulate why. Some of your explanations certainly fit my feelings and experiences as well. I also like the flavor of juniper berries and enjoy a good gin from time to time. πŸ™‚

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  9. That’s quite the homage to your tree, Lynn. You’ve covered it from all angles, I think and it is easy to see why you have become so enamored after seeing the one that started it all. There are not many trees/shrubs I come across with the kind of character these junipers exhibit. Of course, not may of our trees are old enough to really have developed this way due to extreme cutting during our early centuries
    I used to like gin back in the day. :-).

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    • You can say I’ve covered it from all angles, but there are hundreds more photos, Steve! There are always more ways to skin the cat, right? It’s a very different look, but noble old oaks and beech trees are awfully appealing. But I agree, these trees are unique. And gin is delish.

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  10. A thorough post about junipers! I particularly enjoyed the twisty lines that the barks make. Somehow they’re rather calming. Having grown up in an urban environment (and still living in one), it’s very enlightening to learn about a specific type of tree in detail. I don’t even know the names of most of the trees in the city I live in (granted me living in Europe but growing up elsewhere is a bit of a disadvantage here)!

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    • These trees are wonderful subjects…I lived many years in New York City, and loved it. I was always interested in nature and one tree, in particular, caught my eye in the city – the ginkgo. Maybe you know it, because it’s often planted in cities. No doubt it’s harder to really feel close to the natural world in a city but it’s possible to get some good doses of nature. I hope you manage to do that – meanwhile, your architectural photography shines. πŸ™‚ Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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  11. Hi Lynn, What a great tribute to Junipers. Fantastic photos and interesting narrative. They are such amazing specimens and you’ve captured their intricate and textured beauty so well. The black and whites work well showing off the twisting branches and the bark patterns. I love the dreamy quality of the sprawling juniper and your finale with the sweet deer surveying the landscape.

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    • Thank you, Jane….a lot of work putting this together, but the photography end of it was pure pleasure, of course. I have lots more photos of these trees so will probably do another post about them at some point. They have captivated me. You’ve probably seen (and maybe have photographed) similar-looking junipers in the desert. They’re great subjects – I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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  12. A wonderful tribute to the Seaside Juniper. We have both junipers and cedar trees here. Our favorite tree on the property is a big juniper but I am not sure which variety it is. It provides a lot of thick cover for birds and the hummingbirds really love it. #9 Feathers and #11 Tangle are favorites.

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    • Yours might be the Rocky Mountain juniper, which is what they thought these were until recently, so they’re pretty similar looking. I can imagine the cover a good juniper could provide. Thanks for letting me know which photos caught your eye – interesting! Enjoy the rest of your week, Denise!

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