Juniperus (the junipers) is a genus of 50–67 and 34 varieties species of evergreen coniferous trees and shrubs in the Cupressaceae (cypress family), widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere, from the Arctic, south to tropical Africa in the Old World, and to the mountains of Central America, with one species (J. procera) in east Africa extending into the southern hemisphere. Juniperus is the second most diverse genus of conifers. Hundreds of horticultural cultivars have been developed for ornamental use worldwide, and the berry-like cones are used to flavor gin.
Junipers vary in size and shape from trees, 20–40 m tall, to columnar or low-spreading shrubs with long, trailing branches. They are evergreen with needle-like and/or scale-like leaves. They can be either monoecious (male and female flowers on the same plant) or dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants). The female seed cones are very distinctive, with fleshy, fruit-like coalescing scales which fuse together to form a berry-like structure, 4–27 mm long, with 1-12 unwinged, hard-shelled seeds. In some species these "berries" are red-brown or orange but in most they are blue; they are often aromatic and can be used as a spice.
Juniper berries are used as a flavoring in diverse culinary dishes and best known for the primary flavoring in gin (and responsible for gin's name, which is a shortening of the Dutch word for juniper, genever). Juniper berry sauce is often a popular flavoring choice for quail, pheasant, veal, rabbit, venison and other meat dishes. The leaves and berries can also be used to make tea.
Many early prehistoric people lived in or near juniper forests which furnished them food, fuel, and wood for shelter or utensils. Some species are used extensively in landscaping and horticulture. For example, J. chinensis (Chinese juniper) from eastern Asia is a widely-planted ornamental and is as one of the most popular species used in bonsai. It is also a symbol of longevity, strength, athleticism, and fertility.
Junipers grow in habitats ranging from limestone outcrops to sand dunes, sandstone, and granite, but may also occur in bogs. Seed dispersal is generally by frugiverous birds, as passage through a bird gut helps break down the hard seed coat and promotes germination. In North America, junipers have become weedy and have invaded millions of acres of abandoned agricultural land; the present distribution is broader and extends farther north than it did prior to European settlement.
In many semiarid regions, including the western U.S., northern Mexico and central to southwest Asia, Juniper species form the dominant tree cover on large areas. J. communis, common juniper, is widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere, and is the single most widespread conifer species.
Some juniper trees are misleadingly given the common name "cedar," including J. virginiana, the "eastern red-cedar" of North America, the aromatic wood of which is widely used to make moth-repelling cedar drawers, drawer liners, and shelving. However, true cedars are those tree species in the genus Cedrus, family Pinaceae.
(Adams 2008, Gymnosperm Database 2011, Wikipedia 2011)
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