How to Grow Utah Juniper Trees

Gnarled Utah Juniper on the side of a high cliff.

Christian Handl/Getty Images 

In This Article

The legend of the American West grew from a reputation of wildness and rough inhospitable places that offered challenges at every turn. It was a test of our adaptability as a species to show that we could overcome any obstacles in front of us. 

Long before we humans inhabited those wild lands there was another survivor, Juniperus osteosperma, or commonly the Utah Juniper. Growing in rocky crevasses and on the face of sheer sunbaked cliffs, junipers are the ultimate survivors. Desert conditions make this long-lived tree unique, growing, not to fit its form, but fitting the form of the environment and doing it slowly.

A juniper standing only five feet tall may be 50 years old. The Utah Juniper sends tap roots 25 feet straight down searching for water and can stretch its lateral roots up to 100 feet looking for moisture. Even in the windiest, driest, most intense conditions, the roots on this tree will keep the Utah Juniper alive. Trees have been known to be blown over and their insanely strong root systems hold on tight and keep the now horizontal tree growing perfectly fine.  

The Utah Juniper is so adaptable that in recent years it has spread into habitats that were not its historical environment. This has been seen especially in sagebrush-grass communities, leading to the juniper eventually dominating the site and crowding out herbaceous and shrub species.

The Utah Juniper is often confused with its geographic neighbor the One Seed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma), mostly due to location. The easiest way to distinguish the two plants is by looking at the berry-like cones. J. monosperma has “juicier” cones, whereas J. osteosperma has drier cones (dry as a bone).

The botanical name osteosperma comes means bone (osteo) and seed (sperm). When cones are not found, the best way to tell what plant you have is that the tiny leaves of J. monosperma most often have a small, almost unnoticeable dark spot on the side of the leaf facing you that you will need a magnifying glass to see. Also, on the younger leaves of the One Seed Juniper, you will sometimes find a white, crystalline exudate, sticky, and very aromatic substance that is not present on Utah Junipers. 

Botanical Name Juniperus  osteosperma 
Common Name  Utah Juniper 
Plant Type Tree, Shrub
Mature Size 30 feet tall
Sun Exposure Full Sun to Part Shade
Soil Type Sandy, Gravelly, Loose Rock
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time No Bloom
Flower Color No flower but shows blue to purple berry like cones.
Hardiness Zones 5-9
Native Range Southwest United States
Toxicity No

How to Grow the Utah Juniper

Like most western Junipers, the Utah Juniper is often hard to find in the nursery trade unless you search regional speciality nurseries that handle native plants or plants suited for xeriscaping.

Fortunately, it has been getting a closer look due to the native plant and pollinator garden movement. Utah Junipers make fantastic trees for butterfly gardens but they do have allelopathic traits. This is the process of one plant stopping or slowing the growth of another due to the release into the environment of substances acting as germination or growth inhibitors. These can hamper cooperating with some plants. 

Researching and planning your garden with a Juniper is important. You do not want to have a gorgeous garden killed off because of a badly planned addition to the landscape.

Once you find a dealer who sells Utah Junipers and you’ve done your research, planting and growing it isn’t very difficult. One thing worth mentioning is that trying to plant a larger tree or shrub does not usually come with success because of the issues with transplanting this species due to the large taproot. Stick with growing seedlings or saplings.  

To plant the Utah Juniper, make sure to choose your location knowing the size and characteristics of what you're planting. Consider the utilities and any infrastructure under the plant and think about future improvements.

Once a site is chosen, dig a hole twice as wide as your container is deep and as deep as your container. Keep the tree watered, protect it from high winds and animals for the first year or two with stakes and trunk guards, and enjoy your slow-growing and adaptable Juniper.

Light

The Utah Juniper prefers full sun but can handle part shade. This is an adaptable plant like most desert junipers. It grows in extreme locations and adapts to its conditions.

Soil

The ideal soil for this plant is a loose inorganic mix that is neutral to slightly alkaline. A sandy, gravel pumice mixture is perfect if you are looking to add to your soil to make a more hospitable mix. Again, this tree is adaptable, and it is not particularly picky. 

Water

It does not require much watering and is very drought tolerant. As mentioned, this plant is perfect for xeriscaping or other waterwise gardens.

Temperature and Humidity

The Utah Juniper prefers hot dry climates. It is frost hardy and will do well in zones 5-8, but its native range is hot.   

Fertilizer

The Utah Juniper requires no fertilizer. If after testing the soil you find it to be too acidic, amendments can be added to increase alkalinity. 

Is Utah Juniper Toxic?

This tree is non-toxic and is used for a great many things in Native American cooking, medicine, and ritual. One amazing use for the “berries” is to use the wild yeast on them and make a sourdough starter:

  1. Take 12 Juniper “berries” and make sure they have a milky-white coating, this is the yeast. 
  2. Put them in a jar with one cup of flour and one cup of warm water and loosely cover.
  3. Let rest for a week on the kitchen counter.  
  4. After seven days remove the “berries” and add one cup of warm milk and an additional cup of flour.
  5. Stir and let set for two days.
  6. Your starter is ready to be used and enjoyed for all your baking. 
  7. Store your starter in the refrigerator and add to it after use.