California Juniper (Juniperus californica)

Juniperus californica (California Juniper) is a species of juniper native to southwestern North America.


As the name implies, it is mainly found in numerous California habitats, although its range also extends through most of Baja California, a short distance into the Great Basin in southern Nevada, and into northwestern Arizona. In California it is found in: the Peninsular Ranges, Transverse Ranges, California Coast Ranges, Sacramento Valley foothills, Sierra Nevada, and at higher elevation sky islands in the Mojave Desert ranges.

It grows at moderate altitudes of 2,460–5,250 ft. Habitats include: Pinyon-Juniper Woodland with Single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla); Joshua Tree Woodland; and Foothill Woodlands, in the Montane chaparral and woodlands and Interior chaparral and woodlands sub-ecoregions.


Juniperus californica is a shrub or small tree reaching 9.8–26.2 ft, but rarely up to 33 ft tall. The bark is ashy gray, typically thin, and

appears to be “shredded”. The shoots are fairly thick compared to most junipers, between 0.059 – 0.079 in. in diameter.

Foliage is bluish-gray and scale-like. The leaves are arranged in opposite decussate pairs or whorls of three; the adult leaves are scale-like, 0.039 – 0.20 in. long on lead shoots and 0.039 – 0.059 in. broad. The juvenile leaves (on seedlings only) are needle-like, 0.20 – 0.39 in. long.

The cones are berry-like, 0.28 – 0.51 in. in diameter, blue-brown with a whitish waxy bloom, turning reddish-brown, and contain a single seed (rarely two or three). The seeds are mature in about 8–9 months. The male cones are 0.079 – 0.16 in. long, and shed their pollen in early spring. It is largely dioecious, producing cones of only one sex, but around 2% of plants are monoecious, with both sexes on the same plant.

It is closely related to Juniperus osteosperma (Utah Juniper) from further east, which shares the stout shoots and relatively large cones, but differs in that Utah Juniper is largely monoecious, its cones take longer to mature (two growing seasons), and it’s also markedly more cold-tolerant.


Juniperus californica provides food and shelter for a variety of native ground and avian wildlife. It is a larval host for the native moth Sequoia sphinx (Sphinx sequoiae).

Native Americans

The plant was used as a traditional Native American medicinal plant, and as a food source, by the indigenous peoples of California, including the Cahuilla people, Kumeyaay people (Diegueno), and Ohlone people. They gathered the berries to eat fresh and to grind into meal for baking.



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Photo credits: Laura Camp, Joe Decruyenaere

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.