Habit: A beautiful evergreen tree with varying shape and size. Western juniper can present a round to conical overall shape, as well as an irregular picturesque figure, sculpted with wind-shorn limbs. A few rare specimen have reached above 80 feet in height, but the typical tree will grow up to 30 feet tall and develop heavy limbs with age. The bark of young trees is brown and scaly, and, in mature trees, it turns grey to red with dark furrows. Foliage is pleasantly scented, green to grayish green and covered with distinct resin glands. Needles vary in shape, from pointed to round, and are composed of overlapping whorls of scales. Seed cones are deep blue, fleshy, round and small, about 0.6 inches in diameter. Each cone is covered by a waxy bloom and bears 2 to 3 seeds. Male cones are brown and small, and drop soon after releasing their pollen.
Ecology: Western juniper inhabits dry foothills, deserts and high elevation flats, from 4,000 to 8,000 feet. It is native from Central Washington through California, mostly east of the Cascade range, and eastwards to the Blue Mountains, Idaho and Nevada.
Growing conditions: enjoys sun to partial shade and moist to dry soils. It does not grow well in clay soils. It is a drought-tolerant and slow growing plant that can be pruned back to function as an accent shrub. It will look striking in a garden along manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.), dogwood (Cornus sp.) and other smaller shrubs.
Juniperus occidentalis provides food and cover for many birds and small mammals, including woodpeckers and coyotes, which enjoy its berry-like seed cones. Elk and mule deer consume small amounts of the foliage in the winter and spring, and, in particularly severe winters, larger game species resort to it as an emergency source of calories.
This is a longlived conifer that can be around for over 1000 years. The oldest one documented has lived to 1,600 years of age. The changes that occur with aging in such a long span can explain why some trees look so unlike others within this species. Primarily due to extensive grazing and fire suppression, Western juniper has extended its range in the past 150 years, and now occupies around 42 million acres in Western America.