Here in Colorado, on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the trees need to be tough to survive the hard winters and the parched dry summers of this high- altitude terrain. The highest-known juniper forests occurs at altitudes of over 16,000 feet in south-eastern Tibet and the northern Himalayas, creating one of the highest tree-lines on earth. It is not surprising that juniper trees are therefore amongst the most resilient of evergreens often found growing in wild and inhospitable places. In Finland which has an extremely long and cold winter climate, it is even common to see ancient juniper trees growing directly from cracks in the granite… like twisted bonsai emerging from large chunks of rock left behind by the retreating glaciers.

Juniper is one of the most universally valued medicinal trees with over sixty different species, which is found throughout Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, Africa as well as the Americas. Three kinds of juniper are common on the foothills of the lower slopes of the Rocky Mountains: the Utah Juniper (Sabina osteosperma) found on the driest western terrain, the One-seed Juniper (Sabina monosperma) and the Rocky Mountain Juniper (Sabina scopulorum), sometimes called the Rocky Mountain Red Cedar. The Rocky Mountain Juniper is the most common juniper of the Rockies, which can be found from British Columbia right down to Texas. Junipers are easy to distinguish from the other evergreens as they have needles which have tiny triangular overlapping scales, pressed close to the stem.

The so-called juniper ‘berries’ of all species, are actually fleshly miniature cones whose scales have grown in size, then merged together and united. Each berry requires from one to three years to mature, starting as a small green fruit then maturing gradually to a dark, blue-black colour. In Colorado, these ripe berries are eaten by birds, foxes, coyotes, raccoons and chipmunks … the Native Americans traditionally also ate the berries and used them as a tea and spice, as well as using the berries as a medicine.

In the Himalayan region, dried juniper needles are used to make ‘sang’, which is burnt as a purifying ritual smoke offering. Likewise, juniper is one of the plants used in Scottish Gaelic rites, such as those performed at Hogmanay (New Year), where the smoke of burning juniper is used to cleanse, bless and protect the household and its inhabitants. In the Americas, the berries have been traditionally used for respiratory diseases such as coughs and bronchitis as well as for muscular pain or joint conditions, including arthritis, since it helps expel uric acid from the joints. Western herbal medicine recommends the ripened berries of the Common Juniper (J. communis) for treating conditions of the urinary tract and for respiratory conditions, including asthma. NOTE: Care must be taken however, as the plant also has a long history of use in folklore as an arbortifacient since it stimulates the uterine muscles, so both the plant and oil should be avoided during pregnancy. It should also be avoided by those with kidney disease.

The essential oil of juniper is usually obtained through steam distillation of the needles, wood or powdered berries, mainly from the Common Juniper species, Juniperus communis. In Eastern Europe however, the species J. Smerka is used to produce an essential oil using the berries and wood, although this is considered to be less fragrant. However, the highest quality and most aromatic essential oil produced from the juniper tree is that of the berries. These are their true treasures … since this oil has a delightfully fresh, woody-warm, slightly green-balsamic fragrance, which for me completely epitomizes the scent of the northern wilderness.

According to modern scientific research, juniperberry oil exhibits excellent anti-microbial properties: specifically it has good anti-fungal, anti-septic and anti-oxidant properties. This makes it particularly valuable for application in skin care treatments within an aromatherapy context. It is especially useful employed in blends for acne, oily or combination skin, having a mild astringent action, as well as for fungal conditions and dermatitis. It also valuable used in massage oil blends to improve blood circulation, and for treating conditions such as arthritis, rheumatism and gout. As an anti-spasmodic it is excellent employed in sports body oils in dealing with muscular pains, cramps or sprains. It also helps tightens slack muscles and aids in restoring a feeling of firmness and youthfulness, especially in combination with black pepper. Juniper berry oil also blends well with rosemary, frankincense, elemi, galbanum, all the woody oils – such as cedarwood, pine and cypress - as well as citrus oils.

Used in diffusers, it makes a really lovely cleansing and purifying air freshener, which helps to eliminate germs or viruses from the immediate environment, by directly disinfecting the air. To make a purifying room fragrance, which simultaneously uplifts and revives the spirits, simply combine the following oils as shown below, then add a few drops to an oil burner or diffuser:

Mountain Air Diffuser Recipe

4 parts juniperberry oil

2 parts cypress oil

2 parts rosemary oil

2 parts lemon oil

Other species: in Europe, Juniperus oxycedrus is used to produce cade essential oil, which is made from the crude tar produced by distillation from the heartwood of the tree, which has a pronounced smoky, leather-like aroma. In aromatherapy, the uses of cade oil are however limited due to possible skin sensitization issues. Another species, J. virginiana is also used to produce the so-called ‘Virginian Cedarwood’ oil while J. ashei is used to produce ‘Texas Cedarwood’ oil … both of which share similar therapeutic properties to both Common Juniper and Atlas Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica).