By Claire Kortyna

A juniper tree and I sit like old friends on the shore of the St. Mary’s River while I think Chesapeake thoughts. The sea grasses blow around us, shifting against each other like spoons in a drawer. Washed up jellyfish dot the sand, fallen stars splay in the sunshine. The berries on the juniper tree, pastel and sky-blue, peep from amid the dense evergreen. I turn landward, reach out and crush a few scallop-scaled needles in my palm. The rich smell of cedar hangs in the air until blown onward by the brackish coastal breeze.

The red juniper that grows specifically in the Chesapeake area is commonly known as the Eastern Red Cedar, yet it is actually a member of the cypress family. It’s almost like the lineage of the juniper tree contains a series of messy divorces and not-quite-separations. Maiden name cypress, given name red cedar, but please just call it juniper. Technically, the most frequently used name is the Eastern Red Cedar, but ever since I can remember it’s been a juniper. Handily in my favor, the American Joint Committee on Horticultural Nomenclature in Harrisburg ruled that the juniper is not a “true cedar” and should stop being called one.

The cypress family is one of the largest tree classes and one of the most widely distributed. From coast to coast across the world cypress trees – including redwoods and giant sequoias – are numerous and mainly evergreens. But there are three species of deciduous trees included in this sprawling clan – every family has its black sheep, doesn’t it?

The juniper is undeniably the hardest working member of its family. As a cedar wood tree, the juniper is commonly harvested for its fragrant and durable wood. Cedar heartwood is used for fence posts, cabinetwork, cedar chests, and carving. With its strong aromatic smell, it has a natural resistance to moths. The heartwood also used to be the primary source of wood for pencils. Enduring as it is lovely, cedar wood has been an American classic from the beginning. Many Native American tribes took advantage of its versatility. The Cheyenne carved cedar into highly valued flutes as well as more functional items such as lance shafts, bows, and bedding support. The Menominee tribe wove mats out of the bark for wrappings, canoe linings, temporary roofings, and carpets. 

Because the juniper can grow in difficult terrains and conditions, it is still commonly used in landscaping. Ornamental and hardy, this lovely tree can be found in everything from cemetery plantings and lawn shelters to shrubbery. Junipers are pioneer trees, meaning they are often one of the first trees to take over a field.

The river had turned murky in the wind. I inhaled again and shifted my feet in the sand. The juniper is resilient, hardened no doubt by its crisscrossing family situation. Sure enough, the shreddy trunk of the juniper beside me, unbothered by the strange sand-pebble ground, was growing right at on the edge of the water.

The remnants of the historical popularity of the juniper tree still linger. Baton Rouge, LA, for example, is named for the cedar tree. Baton Rouge, or “red stick,” got its name when the French traders in the 1800s noticed the many poles of cedar wood staked throughout the forest. Native American tribes of the area used them as markers to distinguish between different hunting territories.

The juniper benefits the animal world as well, protecting deer and small mammals living under and inside its webbed foliage. It’s a common nesting site for robins, sparrows, mockingbirds, and eastern screech owl. The berries, despite their fruit-like appearance and soft flesh, are actually the cones of the tree. They are a major food source for many birds and mammals, perhaps particularly the cedar waxwing, named for its dietary dedication. The juice of these cones also give gin that piney flavor.

Juniper trees are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The male tree releases pollen, while the female tree bears the cones and seeds. The juniper I talk to is undeniably a woman, heavy with bluebell colored clusters – and stronger because of it. It takes a woman to continue to grow so gracefully, almost miraculously, in such inhospitable soil. Despite her troubled lineage, and a somewhat complicated nomenclature, the juniper twists up from the bank, brazenly making life where other trees cannot. I can only hope that I grow up so versatile and strong, at once functional and lovely and tenacious without sacrificing grace. When I stood to go, I left the needles I had collected at the base of the tree, but the smell of cedar lingered for hours on my palm.


Claire’s nonfiction is forthcoming in The Offbeat and has been published in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, the Daily Palette. Her essay “Lunar Musings” won Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment’s Home Voices Contest. Her poetry has appeared in Avatar Literary Magazine and Minotaur Online Literary Magazine. In addition to being a creative writer she now teaches English at Iowa State University. She graduated from St. Mary's College of Maryland in 2014.