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Biodiversity Blog

 

The Texas Eight: Love ‘Em, Hate ‘Em, or Drink ‘Em

Texas has eight species of juniper native to the state. Some prevent slope erosion, some play havoc with allergies, and some go into a gin made by Integrative Biology professor, Dr. Molly Cummings.

Dr. Cummings uses berries from two Texas junipers for two different gins made by WildGins Co., a gin company headquartered in Austin and run by Cummings and her siblings. Gin is a spirit that combines a neutral grain spirit base (think vodka) with juniper and other botanicals. Juniper is the defining botanical to all gins. If there is no juniper in the mix, it’s not a gin but rather an infused vodka. Gin is typically made from the common juniper (Juniperus communis), a species that grows in Europe and the northeastern US. But the Texas berries Cummings uses are not used in any other gin in the world, and provide a unique twist on the flavor of gin.

Juniperus deppeana alligator juniperweb trees pinchot juniper 556
 The bark of Juniperus deppeana (Photo: Matthew Kowal: Wikimedia Commons) Juniperus pinchotii (Photo: Renée West for National Park Service)

 

For a little back ground, junipers are often called cedar but are not cedar at all. They are a medium-sized tree and have been used for centuries by Plains and Southwest indigenous populations for medicine, ritual, fuel, and food. Junipers are dioecious, meaning some have male flowers and others have female flowers. The eight species in Texas are listed below.

For Cummings’ “WildBark West Texas Dry Gin (formerly known as Checkerbark) and “Checkerbark Barrel Rested” gins, she hand-picks berries from the Alligator juniper also known as the Checkerbark juniper (Juniperus deppeana) which grow in the Davis Mountains in West Texas. Alligator junipers are some of the largest growing junipers (trees as tall as 25 meters). This tree’s bark is very distinctive, cracked into small square plates which gives the tree its common name. The Alligator juniper berry is highly aromatic and more robust than the common juniper, imparting a taste to “WildBark West Texas Dry Gin” that Cummings describes as “bolder and with more zing.” This is the kind of gin one would use for a classic martini or a gin and tonic.

While out west foraging for the Alligator juniper, Cummings noticed a very different kind of juniper.  Unlike most junipers that are very aromatic (that ‘piney’ flavor associated with the common juniper), this other juniper that caught her eye was red, juicy and subtly sweet.  She began collecting berries from this Red Berry juniper (Juniperus pinchotii) and sent it off to her distiller to make an entirely different kind of gin, “WildJune Western Style Gin.”  The Red Berry juniper lives in West Texas at lower elevations than the Alligator juniper, and is believed to be a stabilized hybrid of alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) and one-seeded juniper (Juniperus monosperma). “WildJune combines the unusual sweetness of the Red Berry juniper with the aromatic common juniper and nine other botanicals to create a complex bouquet of flavors.  This is the kind of gin that appeals to both gin connoisseurs as well as folks who are wary of gin’s strong flavors. The delicate versatility of “WildJune” lends itself to be served on the rocks, as a martini or in any kind of cocktail that calls for vodka.  

Juniper berries are the main flavoring of all gins, but it is also made with a combination from any number of botanicals including but not limited to: coriander seeds, angelica root, angelica seed, lemon or orange peel, cassia (a member of the cinnamon family), almonds, cubeb berries, ginger, licorice, and nutmeg.  ‘Dry’ gins usually have fewer botanicals and so the juniper flavor is quite strong, whereas ‘western style’ gins have a greater number of botanicals in addition to juniper and are considered less ‘juniper-forward’.

Golden cheeked Warbler male Kerr WMA TX 2015 05 24at13 39 5310 21421229850 
 Golden-cheeked warbler (Photo: HarmonyonPlanetEarth Wikimedia Commons)

And while gin lovers can be thankful for junipers, these trees elicit a range of emotions in the broader population. For ranchers and farmers, they have often been seen as problematic for ideas about water use that are now outdated. Historically, it had been estimated that one ten-foot bushy Ashe juniper, growing in the eastern Edwards Plateau in full sun, could use 33 gallons of water in a day. However, scientists now recognize single-tree water use is irrelevant due to the complexities of woodland dynamics and underlying geologies. 

It had also been thought that Ashe juniper canopies and thick layers of leaf litter block as much as 80% of the precipitation that would otherwise reach the soil. However, more recent studies have shown that there is only about 40% canopy-litter interception.   

For many conservationists,  Ashe junipers are necessary for the habitat protection of two rare endangered Neotropical migrant songbirds: the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo. Junipers also provide shelter and food for other wildlife.

(Thank you to Dr. Molly Cummings and Robert Adams' taxonomic treatise on junipers)

OTHER TEXAS JUNIPERS

6151 IMG02198  

Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei)

One of the dominant species in Texas, this is the tree that makes life hell for those who suffer from “Cedar fever.” Blame the male trees, as it’s their pollen that cool winter winds carry to the female trees that produce berries. Ashe juniper occupies over 8 million acres of Texas rangeland. Because of their high winter population concentrations, Cedar waxwings and robins are particularly good at spreading seeds as they adore eating the berries.

(Photo: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center)

Juniperus virginiana  

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

This tree grows in the eastern part of Texas. It has the potential to live 900 years. The wood of this tree is aromatic and deters moths, so it is used to line chests and closets. Like the pollen of the ashe juniper, Eastern red cedar’s pollen is also an allergen, but not as potent as ashe juniper. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the US, farmers were encouraged to plant this tree as a windbreak as the tree grows quickly and in dense clusters.

 

(Photo: David J. Stang, WikiMedia Commons)

f04 01  

Oval Gland Juniper (Juniperus ovata)

Occupying a habitat just west of the Ashe juniper’s zone in Crocket county, the oval gland juniper likes limestone glades and bluffs in west central Texas. This tree’s dark blue berries (seed cones) mature in one year and also contribute to ‘cedar fever’ when it sheds its pollen from December through February. It is morphologically very similar to Juniperus ashei. It has only recently begun to be picked up by other botanists as a species.

(Range map: Robert Adams)

Juniperus monosperma UGA  

One-seeded juniper (Juniperus monosperma)

This tree has a very small presence in Texas. Unlike other junipers, the wood of this species is not durable, so it is not used for things the heartwood of juniper can often be used for like fence posts or furniture.

(Photo: Dave Powell, Wikimedia Commons)

Juniperus scopulorum web  

Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)

Like the one-seeded juniper, there are relatively few examples of this species in Texas, and those that exist occur in the north west part of the state. A cultivar of this species is often used in landscaping, providing tall cone-like structures. These trees can live for a long time, and there are currently examples in New Mexico dating around 2000 years.

(Photo: Dave Powell, Wikipedia)

Juniperus flaccida Big Bend NP  

Weeping juniper (Juniperus flaccida)

This tree has a very tiny presence in the extreme southwest portion of the state. Its foliage is long and string-like, and it thrives in dry soils.

(Photo: Homer Edward Price, Wikimedia Commons)

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