The alligator juniper is one of my favorite trees. I first encountered this member of the juniper family while hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains. It’s one of those trees that is hard to miss once you identify and get to know its distinctive characteristics. Here are five facts about the alligator juniper tree.
1. The alligator juniper is named for its most distinctive characteristic — its bark.
The easiest way to identify the alligator juniper is by its distinctive bark. Look for rough square-plated bark that resembles the skin of an alligator. The thick bark grows in a cracked or checkered and furrowed pattern that sets it apart from other trees. The leaves of the alligator juniper are a deep green to blue-green in appearance.
2. The alligator juniper is a tree as tough as its name.
The Guadalupe Mountains is a perfect place for alligator juniper. The tree prefers dry hillsides at moderate elevations like those found in the Trans-Pecos region of the state. The tree grows in the company of piñons, ponderosas, oaks, and other junipers. Alligator juniper has a high tolerance for heat and a low requirement for water. This evergreen tree thrives in either alkaline limestone or slightly acidic igneous soil.
3. The alligator juniper is in no hurry.
According to the science of dendrochronology or the study of growth rings in trees, alligator juniper trees grow at a slow rate. Research has shown that young trees grow in diameter at a rate of 0.6 inches per decade — that’s pretty slow! The growth rate slows to 0.4 inches after the tree reaches 170 years of age. Alligator juniper trees have been known to live as long as 500 years. That’s pretty amazing!
4. The alligator juniper is a berry producer.
The female tree produces edible berries that can be consumed raw or steamed. Native Americans used the strongly scented berries to flavor teas and incense and even added the berries to cornbread and sausages. Some Indians dried the berries for winter use or ground them into a mush and then formed them into cakes. In addition, they used the resin of the tree as chewing gum.
5. The alligator juniper is a favorite of wildlife.
The alligator juniper attracts a variety of wildlife. Wild turkeys and deer especially enjoy juniper berries. Various bird species such as sparrows, Mexican jays, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds breed among junipers. So, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife when you are out hiking among alligator juniper.
Magnificent — that’s the word that best describes the huge live oak trees at Brazos Bend State Park. These stately giants elegantly dressed in Spanish moss have lived through lots of years of Texas history. As a kid I learned that scientists can determine the age of a tree by counting the rings in the trunk of the tree. The term for the study and dating of annual growth rings in trees is dendrochronology, from dendro (tree), chronos (time or events in past time), and ology (the study of).
I know very little about the science of dendrochronology. But, that has never stopped me from admiring and enjoying the old, stately trees of Brazos Bend. Every time I hike or bike the trails at the park, I can’t help but wonder about the ages of these moss-draped giants. The oaks of Brazos Bend have survived lots of stuff through years of growth on the coastal plains of Texas, including hurricanes and droughts and other threats.
I recently read “Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World,” a book authored by billionaire Warren Buffet’s son, Howard. The older Buffet is quoted in the book as saying,“We do sit in the shade of trees planted by others.” He continued, “While enjoying the benefits dealt us, we should do a little planting ourselves.” What a great thought and reminder that there is wisdom in planting trees.
Like John Chapman, the American pioneer nurseryman also known as Johnny Appleseed, those who plant trees have a vision that extends beyond their lifetime. Tree planters invest in the next generation and have faith in a future they may never see. They are not afraid to take on big projects or to start things for which they may never see an end result. And yet they plant anyway because they believe that someone in the future will one day enjoy sitting under the shade of the trees they planted.
The huge trees at Brazos Bend did not get huge overnight. And the trees that we plant will not get big overnight. Good things, including growth and maturity, take time. It’s amazing to think that every majestic oak at Brazos Bend started as a seed. Big things often have small beginnings. Not every seed that randomly falls into the ground or that we plant will grow or survive the ravages of time, but some will. And those that do will provide shade for people we may never meet.
The next time you visit the Coastal Plains of Texas, make it a point to visit Brazos Bend State Park, if for no other reason than to enjoy the trees and to sit under their shade. These trees are a Texas treasure and will continue to provide enjoyment to park visitors for years to come. And, if you are so inspired, go home and plant a tree that will grow to provide shade for people you may never meet.
I enjoy windshield time on Texas highways. On a recent drive, I turned West off of US Route 77 onto Texas State Highway 285. The range on either side of this desolate 22-mile stretch between Riviera and Falfurrias is riddled with gnarled mesquite trees.
Call me crazy, but I like mesquite trees. The mesquite is the tree of my youth — the first tree I learned to identify and the first tree I climbed as a kid. We had little grass on the lawn of our home in the small town of Mission, but we had plenty of mesquite trees. I had many an adventure in and around these trees and many fond memories as a result.
The name of the tree is an Hispanicized version of the Aztec word mizquiti. This hardy tree refuses to grow straight and has a disposition as defiant as the rugged environment where it thrives. And, its gnarled wood is as hard as the vaqueros, the cowboys, that settled South Texas. The mesquite is one tough tree — certainly harder to kill than any weed.
The mesquite tree is a survivor that laughs in the face of drought. It has a tap root that can reach depths in excess of a hundred feet and lateral roots that spread in all directions, each designed to drink in the life-giving moisture that enables it to survive in harsh environments. South Texas ranchers either love them or hate them, but there is no middle ground.
Texas writer J. Frank Dobie loved mesquite trees. He wrote, “I could ask for no better monument over my grave than a good mesquite tree, its roots down deep like those of people who belong to the soil, its hardy branches, leaves and fruit holding memories of the soil.” However, pioneer Texas rancher W.T. Waggoner called the mesquite “the devil with roots,” adding “It scabs my cows, spooks my horses, and gives little shade.”
I like the ubiquitous mesquite tree. I always know that I am a little closer to home when I catch sight of their gnarled trunks in the distance and see them waving to me with their feathery leaves when I turn on to Highway 285 to begin the final leg of my journey home. It is the tree of my youth — a tough tree that reminds me to always persevere.