Alligator Junipers–my new favorite tree in New Mexico

In New Mexico, a towering alligator juniper that may be 1,000 years old!

Alligator Juniper – “Juniperus Pachyphloea” (or juniperus deppeana), named after its bark pattern that looks like the skin of an alligator, is also known as mountain cedar inTexas, oak-barked cedar in Arizona, and checkered-board cedar in other places.   Many people consider it a cedar tree because of its odor.  It is my new favorite tree.

It's beautiful even when it's dead

When we were in western New Mexico this fall, we saw many of these hardy, gnarled giants.

Alligator junipers

The alligator juniper is one of the largest of this species that includes 56 types—but only when circumstances are favorable—says Henry H. Gibson in his 1913 book American Forest Trees.  However our Servas host Caroly says that some of the alligator junipers there in New Mexico are a 1,000 years old, so given time, they  can then be sixty feet high or more and four or five feet in diameter.

The trunks of the alligator junipers are especially interesting

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Where Caroly and George live, the logging crews came through in 1930s, but because alligator trees are so twisted and gnarled and many fork near the ground, most were ignored while the nearby firs and pine were harvested.

Forked trunks are usual

Some alligator junipers have multiple trunk forks

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Alligator juniper can, however, be used as fence posts and telephone poles because even when they are in contact with the ground, they are durable.  Caroly and George used some from their own land in the construction of their fabulous house.

From inside Caroly and George's fabulous home

New Mexico has very hot summers and bitterly cold winters.  Thus in the cut trunk of an alligator juniper that Caroly and George showed us, the tree rings in some years were barely discernable because the harsh conditions create very short growing seasons.  What those tough conditions do to the trees is make them incredibly varied and beautiful. 

Twisted trunk

The Plant World, volume 9, by Plant World Association, confirms that some alligator juniper are likely to be 1,000 years old, which means that they sprouted during the Middle Ages!  Then the Toltec and Mixtec civilizations were flourishing, the Song Dynasty in China was making great discoveries in science, and the Normans were dominating much of Europe.   And I think I’ve seen many changes in the world!  The Plant World also notes that alligator junipers should be considered second to California sequoias in size.  Why hadn’t I known about this tree?

Gibson says they do best at elevations between 4,000 to 6,000 feet in canyon and ravine bottoms.  Their range is from southwest Texas, on the desert ranges of Arizona and New Mexico, south of the Colorado plateau, among the northern mountains of Arizona, and southward to Oaxaca in Mexico.  According to Mary Stuever’s Field Guide to the Sandia Mountains, the largest one in New Mexico has a girth of more than 26 feet!  She also notes that these trees are very prolific.  When cut, the root sprouts of alligator junipers multiply like “the brooms in Fantasia.”  The wood is generally light tan in the center with light-yellow sapwood (110).   The trees produce insipidly sweet small, usually ½ inch in diameter, blue berries.

Alligator juniper berries

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Native Americans included the berries in their diets.  Navahos made tea from the berries and used them to treat stomach aches, diabetes, and for female contraceptives.  Bears and birds love the berries, which take two years to mature.  According to The Plant World, the berries have protuberances like those on a large green caterpillar and are shaped like small cones covered with juicy pulp.

Although this is not an Alligator Juniper as I first thought, but an Arizona Madrone, it is another beautiful tree we can appreciate.

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[Sean in Tucson let me know that the above photo is actually an Arizona Madrone not a Juniper.  He can tell by the leaves growing on it.  So now I will search for this tree too.  Thanks, Sean].

The foliage is grayish green with a white fleck on each leaf.

Alligator juniper branch

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In Hiking New Mexico, Laurence Parent gives directions for a hike in Gila National Park, about 12 miles northeast of Silver City, off of highway U.S.180,  to see perhaps the largest of the alligator junipers at over 60 feet.  The hike is a 5.5 mile loop, an easy hike that can be done in any season.

For a look at possibly the largest alligator juniper, go to

Not only are alligator junipers tall, but they create a space of serenity. Caroly’s mom picked out this burial spot under a huge alligator juniper.

Serenity under an alligator juniper

It’s a place of beauty and peace.

Alligator junipers are hardy, beautiful trees.

What about you?  What’s your favorite tree?

Aloha, Renée


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About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

8 responses to “Alligator Junipers–my new favorite tree in New Mexico”

  1. Sean in Tucson says :

    Check me if I’m wrong but the picture you have the says, “Juniper Limb” looks to be an Arizona Madrone not a Juniper. You can tell by the leaves growing on it. I might be wrong but just wondering. Take care.

    • reneeriley says :

      Hey, Sean: I made the changes in this blog. Thanks, and now I will look for Arizona Madrones. Aloha, Renee

      • Sean in Tucson says :

        Hi Renee. It is cool to meet other people that truly appreciate trees and the natural world. The Alligator Juni is one of the most interesting trees to me to and it smells really good when it burns also. The Madrone is a tree I got to know when I lived in Northern California near the coast. The Pacific Madrone is highly sought after by people that want to heat their homes with it, although illegal to cut if still standing. It burns extremely hot(like Manzanita) and in fact has been known to crack wood stoves if used exclusively. The wood is extremely hard and the bark is so unique and beautiful to the touch. Very nice pics:)

      • reneeriley says :

        Thanks for giving us more tree information, Sean. The more we know, the more we can see. Aloha, Renee

  2. Johnny Spicer says :

    The Alligator Juniper is protected in Arizona, Only “dead and down” can be harvested.It is highly prized by several renowned Southwestern furniture craftsman. I personally have seen some of the best furniture made from it by Sedona Arizona furniture maker Craig Nimtz at his eclectic appointment only shop. The Crooked Chair in Sedona Arizona site:
    I worked for Craig off and on for several years part time. You would be so lucky to own one of his Alligator Juniper pieces. Expensive and rare “Christ wood”! A trip to his shop is a once in a lifetime experience!

  3. Margaret says :

    So interesting to this New Englander in Vermont!

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Margaret: I was taken by these trees in part because they a so different from the trees I know from growing up in the Midwest and from those here in Hawaii. Each region has its own beauty. You, I think, may still have some beautiful fall leaves. Aloha, Renee

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