To get us through the dark days of January, Dalefoot has teamed up with the RSPB to highlight one of our most important native conifers, the juniper. With its evergreen symbolism of life, even in the depths of winter, Jo Chamberlain, Tree Nursery Officer for the Wild Haweswater project, explains more about this very special tree:
The juniper woodland of Haweswater is a special place, and particularly so during the winter. Offering an important food source to many native and migratory birds, time spent among this ancient tree species can be richly rewarding. You may hear the gregarious chatter of fieldfare, known as the juniper thrush, or Walcholderdrossel in German, or the gentle seep of the redwing call, as visiting flocks make the most of the berries on offer. Wildlife watchers with a talent for being in the right place at the right time, could also be rewarded with a spectacular sighting of waxwings from Scandinavia making the most of the bounty. Stunning birds in an equally stunning landscape.
Culturally, Juniper has been used by our ancestors in a range of practical and fascinating ways. Hung above doorways and burnt at Hallowe’en as a deterrent to evil spirits, it was also burned indoors to sanctify the home. Medicinally, the cedar-like fragrance was also thought to offer protection against infectious illness. Our ancient forbears used juniper to treat stomach ailments and epilepsy and more recently, its essential oils have been applied in aromatherapy practice, particularly in relation to arthritis, respiratory infections and skin complaints. Producing almost invisible smoke when burning, juniper became the timber of choice for the illegal Scottish whisky distillers of the past, ensuring a ready dram that did not catch the eye of the local excise man.
Now, we particularly associate juniper berries with the production of gin. The word gin has its roots in the French genievre and Dutch jenever for juniper, highlighting how the natural world can embed its roots in our language too.
Juniper is a fascinating species, richly adapted to thrive in a range of soil conditions, and at various altitudes, and is an important source of food and shelter for a wide range of invertebrate and bird life. It is an ancient member of the flora that has evolved in the British Isles since the water retreated following the last ice age, an evolutionary link in the natural and cultural heritage that binds us to both the present and the past. It should be given every opportunity to grow, regenerate and flourish in the wider landscape.
Part 2 will be posted next week...
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