SCV Outdoor Report: Juniper Berries
This report is a "Best of Wendy Langhans SCV Outdoor Report" and has been previously published.
Earlier this year, my husband and I took a drive out to the eastern edge of the Santa Clarita valley. It was a sunny morning, so we bundled up in our jackets and took the top down. As we drove along Agua Dulce Canyon road, the junipers caught my eye - they were chock full of plump, greyish-blue berries. But, according to botanists, they’re not really berries.
They’re actually modified conifer cones; “instead of woody scales like a pine-cone, juniper berries have fleshy scales that have merged to surround the seeds.” These junipers are known as California Juniper (Juniperus californica), and are found mostly in California, as well as in sections of western Arizona, Nevada, and Baja California.
Historically, juniper berries have been used in many cultures for all sorts of purposes. Native Americans used them for food; they ground the berries and baked them in cakes or mush. In Europe, they were used to flavor meats and stews. Juniper berries were also used for medicinal purposes. I was surprised to learn that gin was first developed in Holland in the 17th century to treat “stomach complaints, gout and gallstones”. Gin is flavored with - you guessed it - juniper berries (juniperus communis).
Junipers are useful in other ways as well. They “provide food and shelter for deer, elk, pronghorn, wild horses...and other animals. The berry crops that are produced annually are consumed by birds and mammals.” The land we saw along Agua Dulce Canyon road was recently acquired as open space and is part of the wildlife corridor between the northern and southern sections of the Angeles National Forest. In an odd sort of way, these junipers function like a combination of Motel 6 and In-N-Out Burger for the animals passing through that wildlife corridor. Those of us who are packing up the car and “heading home for the holidays” can certainly appreciate that. Merry Christmas!