Identifying Juniper Trees and Shrubs

Learn what's unique about this widespread evergreen.

Detail shot of a Juniper with blue berries in fall.

Yevgeniy Drobotenko / Getty Images

Juniper may refer to any number of woody evergreen plants that belong to the genus Juniperus of the Cypress family. They are most common to the Northern Hemisphere, but their range reaches south to Central America and Africa. Junipers are often short and bushy, however there are thirteen juniper species native to North America and eleven are mostly tree-like. It is commercially grown as an evergreen ornamental shrub or tree.

Here, we explain the juniper’s key identifying characteristics, as well as the plant's native range, uses, and explore some different species of juniper.

Description and Identification

There are about 60 different juniper species, which can grow in many different shapes, sizes, and even colors. All junipers are evergreen, with either needles or distinctly scaly and flat leaves. The leaves may start as needles and mature into scaly structures.

All juniper species have seeds but not fruits or flowers, making them gymnosperms. However, the seeds grow in berry-like cones that are colorful and often called juniper berries. 

In many cases, juniper is a low-branching shrub with a rounded form, but some grow vertically into trees. The adult tree shape is often narrowly columnar, and may also be described by landscape professionals as “upright.” The shape of shrub junipers may be described as prostrate, weeping, creeping, and bushy. 

Junipers are known by a variety of common names, including juniper bush, juniper plant, juniper shrub, juniper wood, and juniper flower. Additionally, Eastern red cedar is a tree that actually belongs to the Juniper genus.

Native Range

A Juniper in a desert setting in against hill backdrop.

Jim Morefield / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Juniper thrives in a wide range of ecological conditions, and there are species native to Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Africa. The juniper typically grows on dry, open, rocky slopes and mountain sides but may be found in stressed environments where competition with other plants is almost nonexistent. It also often grows in partial shade. Depending on the latitude, the juniper can be found on lowland bogs at sea level as well as subalpine ridges and alpine tundra at over 10,000 feet.

In North America, most 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.


Two brown and yellow birds eating juniper berries.
Wildlife depend on junipers cones.

Laura Hedien / Getty Images

Juniper trees and shrubs are valuable for many reasons, such as long-term land rehabilitation projects and the prevention of 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.

Junipers make excellent, vigorous landscaping shrubs, which are readily propagated by cuttings in the commercial nursery trade. They tend to prefer dry, sandy soil and have low requirements for water.

The juniper “berry” is also used as a flavoring for alcohol and some foods, such as pickles and cooked meats. Perhaps its most popular and well-known culinary use is as a signature flavor for gin. Gin actually gets its name from the Dutch word jenever, which means "juniper."

Since common juniper plants are small, the wood is not typically used for lumber purposes. However, it may be carved into small household items, like spoons and bowls. Larger species of juniper like eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) may be used as timber.

The wood of some species of juniper is burned as incense.

Common Pests and Diseases

A brown beetle on a juniper bush with berries.
A brown beetle on a juniper bush with berries.

Ulrike Leone / Getty Images

Some pests to watch out for include the flat grain beetle, sawtoothed grain beetle, and juniper bark borer. Twig and tip blight may also occur due to moist conditions and the presence of fungus.

Identifying Common Juniper

Common Juniper identifying tree illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

As the name would suggest, the most widespread species of juniper is the common juniper (Juniperus communis). It has one of the largest ranges of woody plants in the world, and is also the only circumpolar conifer in the northern hemisphere.

Common juniper generally grows to no more than 3 to 4 feet high, but it is capable of growing into a 30-foot tree. Because of its size, it is considered a small tree or shrub, thriving in cool, temperate areas.

Common junipers have spiny needle-like leaves that grow in whorls. The leaves are sharp-pointed and glossy green with a broad white band on the upper side. The common juniper's needles do not mature into the more scaly leaves seen in other members of the juniper genius.

The bark of the common juniper is red-brown and peels off in thin, vertical stripes that may almost seem papery. The fruit is a berry-like cone that evolves from green to glaucous (grey blue) to black as it ripens.

There are many subspecies or varieties of the common juniper, including Montana, Megistocarpa, and Depressa.

Other Popular Juniper Species

Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis)

The Chinese juniper is native China, Japan, Mongolia and the Himalayas. In the wild, it's often seen as a tall tree that can reach up to 50 feet in height. It tolerates air pollution in urban environments.

Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)

Also called creeping savin, creeping juniper has young needles that are quite prickly and mature into scaly leaves. The plant is ground-hugging, usually growing no taller than 3 feet but reaching up to 20 feet in width. It's native to Canada and areas of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States.

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Native to the Eastern Unites States, this tree can grow up to 90 feet tall, but more typically reaches heights of 30 to 40 feet. Its foliage varies in color from dark green to blue-green or grayish green, and its bark is silvery and soft.