Sunday, March 14, 2010

Juniper Berries

What’s growing in the area: Moss, mushroom, purple aster, young chamisa branches bright lime, June grass, other grasses and seedlings I can’t identify; apple pruning continues.

In my yard: Rose stems have red leaf buds, hyacinths, iris, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, hollyhock, flax, pink evening primrose, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea, Christmas cactus.

Animal sightings: Robin at my uphill neighbor’s, fly in the house.

Weather: Ran Sunday night, snow early Wednesday and Thursday; ground wet and spongy underfoot; 11:52 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The edibility of juniper berries differs by species. The European Juniperus communis has been used to season meat and sauerkraut, as well as gin, but our local monosperma is dismissed as unpalatable.

Part of the distaste may arise from false expectations. Juniper berries, despite their name, aren’t fruits but small conifer cones whose fleshy scales merge into an outer skin that holds a resinous liquid. Early in the season, the skin is green like the surrounding leaf scales and the predominate liquid a pinene. Later in the summer, as the seed ripens, the skin turns a purple blue with a waxy gray coating, while the liquid’s chemistry becomes more appetizing.

Our modern reaction is not that of the past. Dan Moerman has found reports that one-seeded juniper berries were cooked or eaten raw by San Ildefonso, Jemez, Cochiti, Hopi and Navajo. Early in the last century, researchers from the Smithsonian were told young Santa Clara men would bring berry-laden branches back to the pueblo to "please their young relations."

Still, William Robbins and John Harrington were told the berries were better when they were "heated in an open pan." The Ramah Navajo and Apache also roasted the berries. At Hay Hollow, an early Mogollon site near Snowflake, Arizona, between the Fort Apache and Navajo reserves, Hugh Cutler identified carbonized juniper seeds in the remains of two houses that date to the time when hunter-gatherers were first settling.

Humans haven’t been the only ones who eat monosperma berries. Townsend’s solitaire, a dusky grey thrush, lives on nothing else in winter, and its seasonal behavior is dictated by that dependence. In the fall of 1973, Michael Salomonson and Russell Balda watched individual birds stake out territories near Flagstaff centered on tall ponderosa pines that allowed the animals to attack intruders in the surrounding juniper.

They noted caged birds ate 204 berries a day, with each berry containing 315.31 calories. From that, they calculated the more active wild birds needed 42,000 cones a season to maintain their energy levels. The number of trees the thrushes protected was far greater than their needs for the winter.

When the men began their observations, the berries were fleshy. The following year was dry, and the junipers produced no new fruit. The ones that had survived the winter shriveled and many fell to the ground. That year the birds returned to their same territories, but needed twice the number of berries to survive.

Mast years, when berries appear in great profusion, depend on the amount of water available from the previous spring when trees are preparing to produce the next year’s cone crop through the following summer when they ripen. However, wet conditions this time of year prevent the pollen from moving from male to female trees.

At the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro County, where Roman Zlotin and Robert Parmenter watched trees for eight years, the episodic production of berries, usually once every three years, seems related to El Niño oscillations that send more water to New Mexico during the cool phases than during the warm ones.

Somehow Townsend’s solitaires, with their five-year life expectancies, have not only learned how to survive the unpredictable juniper-piñon woodlands in this part of the country when their normal insect diet disappears, but pass that knowledge on to their young even though they exclude them from their winter territories.

Similarly, people who lived in these lands before the Spanish no doubt learned the trees’ cycles, when the berries were most edible, and how to treat them in famine years. It’s only when more reliable foods became available that that specialized knowledge was lost and the berries became inedible to the uninitiated.

Bohrer, Vorsila L. "Paleoecology of the Hay Hollow Site, Arizona," Fieldiana 63:1-29:1972; does not specify the juniper species.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Salomonson, Michael G. and Russell P. Balda. "Winter Territoriality of Townsend’s Solitaires (Myadestes townsendi) in a Piñon-Juniper-Ponderosa Pine Ecotone," The Condor 79:148-161:1977.

Zlotin, R.I. and R.R. Parmenter. "Patterns of Mast Production in Pinyon and Juniper Woodlands along a Precipitation Gradient in Central New Mexico (Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge)," Journal of Arid Environments 72:1562-1572:2008.

Photograph: Last of the one-seeded juniper berries, 6 March 2010; none were left yesterday.

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