Common Juniper Trees in North America

The abundant "tree" has a variety of other names

The common Juniper is a species in the genus Juniperus, in the family Cupressaceae. It has one of the largest ranges of woody plants in the world. It is known by a variety of common names, including the dwarf juniper and prostrate juniper. (Indeed, the Eastern red cedar is actually a juniper.) The plant is also known as the juniper bush, juniper plant, juniper shrub, juniper wood, and juniper flower. There are many subspecies or varieties of the common juniper.

Juniper—which generally grows to no more than 3 to 4 feet high but can grow into a 30-foot tree—is usually a small tree or shrub that is abundant in cool, temperate areas throughout North America and, indeed, throughout the world. Juniperus communis is commercially grown as an evergreen ornamental shrub but is not a valuable tree for wood products. The common juniper is the only circumpolar conifer in the northern hemisphere.

Abundant in North America

common juniper tree
Common juniper. (Rasbak/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Common juniper is found across the U.S. and Canada (as well as Greenland, Europe, and Asia). It is the most abundant juniper in North America, hence the name. There are 13 juniper species native to North America and 11 are mostly tree-like. 

Three major subspecies or varieties grow in North America: 

  • Depressa, which occurs throughout Canada and the United States
  • Megistocarpa, which​ occurs in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Quebec
  • Montana, which​ occurs in Greenland, British Columbia, and California, Oregon, and Washington

Where Juniper Trees Live

Utah Juniper tree
A Utah Juniper Juniperus osteosperma, Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. (Fcb981/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Most North American junipers grow in the western United States; they are the very common small trees that dot the wild landscapes and lowland fields of the West. But junipers also grow in arid deserts and grasslands, as well as the western pine and oak forest zone. In many cases, juniper is a low-branching shrub in rounded form but some become small trees.

Common juniper thrives in a wide range of ecological conditions. The dwarf juniper typically grows on dry, open, rocky slopes and mountainsides but may be found in stressed environments where competition with other plants is almost nonexistent. It also often grows in partial shade. Depending upon the latitude, the common juniper can be found from lowland bogs at sea level to subalpine ridges and alpine tundra at over 10,000 feet.

Juniperus chinensis leaves and shoots
Detail of Juniperus chinensis shoots, with juvenile (needle-like) leaves (left), and adult scale leaves and immature male cones (right). (MPF/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The common juniper's leaves are more like scales than coniferous needles. Some common junipers have spiny needle-like leaves that grow in whorls of three: The leaves are sharp-pointed and glossy green with a broad white band on the upper side. The adult tree shape is often narrowly columnar.

Common juniper bark is red-brown and peels off in thin, vertical strips. The fruit is a berry-like cone that evolves from green to glaucous to black as it ripens. The shrub and tree forms of common junipers are known as prostrate, weeping, creeping, and bushy. More »

Common juniper is of value for long-term land rehabilitation projects and is useful in preventing soil erosion. Common juniper provides important cover and browses for wildlife, especially mule deer. The cones are eaten by several species of songbirds and are an important food source for wild turkeys.

Common junipers make excellent, vigorous landscaping shrubs, which are readily propagated by cuttings in the commercial nursery trade. The juniper berry is also used as a flavoring for gin and some foods. Indeed, the juniper gets its name from the Dutch—who were early distillers of gin—genever, which means "gin," according to gynfoundry.com, an industry website. More »

common juniper
(Zelimir Borzan/University of Zagreb/Bugwood.org)

A hint of just how plentiful common junipers are can be found on ForrestryImages.org, a website operated by the University of Georgia. The site includes more than 10,000 images of junipers found in North American and worldwide as of August 2018. The site also has images of dozens of pests that attack common junipers, including the flat grain beetle, sawtoothed grain beetle, and juniper bark borer.

  More »

Common juniper is often killed by fire. It has been described as having minimal fire surviving regeneration properties, and resprouting after a fire is rare. The foliage of junipers is resinous and flammable, which sustains and fuels fast-moving wildfires, which in turn quickly kill the plants. More »