That’s juniper to you

Russell Wangersky
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It’s a larch, really, or a tamarack, a strange evergreen that isn’t ever-green.

But here, where it’s one of our native trees, it’s called a juniper, and this is one of the few weeks of the year when you get to see how many there really are.

You see it best in the failing of afternoon, or in the orange light of mornings around sunrise when the light’s particularly yellow, because all of the junipers have changed at once, needles bright yellow, and there are drifts of them, miles of them, marked out in a way that they won’t be again until spring, when the high green of their fuzzed soft short needles will single them out again amongst their darker true evergreen cousins.

Not close

It apparently likes full sunlight — whatever else it likes, it’s clear that, like many, it prefers a little space between it and its neighbours.

The needles change late, turning only after a few truly cold nights and the first few days of testing corn snow or ice pellets. They hold on, tough trees, as if unwilling to be convinced that fall has actually ended.

Tough timber

Truth be told, they’re tough all around and through: hard to cut with a bow saw, because it’s as hard as birch yet as gummy as spruce, streaking the saw with black pitch.

Bright white inside when you split junks, wood shot through with black-eyed branch knots and with a grain that corkscrew-twists so that they make you earn your firewood.

And you have to split it: I’ve been told many times, though I don’t know if it is true, that its sap seals over the cut ends of junks, so that, unsplit, it stays green and wet for far longer than fir or spruce.

I can tell you it is noisy wood, burning.

Cut it into planks and put it down as flooring and, under sunlight, it will make itself as yellow as its needles and the black eyes of the knots will stare at you endlessly.

A wonder

Right now, though, it’s a wonder: heading out the highway this weekend, it was as if whole stretches of hillsides had come up in a yellow welt. On the side of the Trans-Canada and again on Veteran’s Memorial and Route 70, there are big finger-blotches pointing out just how much of the otherwise homogeneous forest is actually one particular species.

Right now, the sedge grasses and the other barrens plants are all variations on a single set of colour themes, the yellows working into the browns.

And the juniper is that last bright piece of the puzzle, that defining element that ties all the rest of this province’s understated fall raiment into one, so you can look across from swamp meadow to hillside and see one full sweep of autumn, from puddle to peak.

One bright sweep, but also, the last act.

Harsh winter coming

It is the herald of snow, you know.

It is cold mornings and sharp frosts, wood smoke in the air and the wind that cuts. The fine clear lead edge of a colder season.

For some people, maybe fall is marked by leaves to rake, by the black branches of big deciduous trees suddenly bare.

Maybe its measure includes sending the kids back to school or by the rise and fall of pumpkins on steps. Maybe it’s by the cheerless raising of the corporate Christmas decorations.

Quick change

For me, it’s the snap-of-the-fingers-overnight of the junipers, when all those needles on all those trees change, almost in one single breath.

And now, they’ll hang on for a few more cold mornings, already with some down in the woods so you can pick out the paths that haven’t been recently taken.

When those other needles fall, curtains becoming carpet, the junipers, found and marked clearly only for a few weeks, will disappear from notice again completely until spring.

And it will truly be winter.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Trans-Canada

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Recent comments

  • Peter
    November 08, 2011 - 18:15

    Well written text. Always timely to predict the inevitable, although the inevitable NL winter is always unpredictable. Some other peculiar local trivia about the Juniper/Tamarack: Winter is the time that wooden boats were constructed or the raw logs for such a project gathered. Juniper was the material of choice for ribs and laths. [Pity that the price of energy is such that its value as a fuel is greater than its value as a material. ]The choice tree was one with no knots at least five feet from the roots. Also peculiar to the Avalon the prevailing wind were blamed for having the tree tip point east/ north east. Good for estimating orientation on a foggy day on the barrens, and it omniously points to where some of the most severe winter storm winds will come from.[]. Clever composition strategy...... bring to mind the chill of winter at the same time reminding the reader that the herald of the cold (yellow needles) provides some comfort from it last years juniper firewood) - lol. The Chestnuts and Birches seem to compete to be the first to turn in the autumn, the Juniper is the holdout, all hardwoods but the latter's perserverence makes it the toughest in many ways?......brrrrrr....