Identifying the Common Juniper Tree

Common Juniper identifying tree illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

The common juniper (Juniperus communis) has one of the largest ranges of woody plants in the world. It is commercially grown as an evergreen ornamental shrub but is not a valuable tree for wood products. It is also the only circumpolar conifer in the northern hemisphere.

Here, we explain the common juniper's key identifying characteristics, as well as the tree's native range, uses, and more.

Description and Identification

The common juniper is known by a variety of common names, including the dwarf juniper and prostrate 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 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.

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 stripes. 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.

Native Range

A Juniper in a desert setting in against hill backdrop.

Jim Morefield / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0


Common juniper is found across the United States and Canada, as well as in parts of Greenland, Europe, and Asia. It is the most abundant juniper in North America.

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 on the latitude, the common juniper can be found on lowland bogs at sea level as well as subalpine ridges and alpine tundra at over 10,000 feet.

Uses

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

Laura Hedien / Getty Images

Common juniper is 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.

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. (Gin actually gets its name from the Dutch word jenever, which means "juniper.")

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.