The Sierra juniper, Juniperus occidentalis, is found in pockets throughout the Sierra Nevada. When exposed to particularly harsh conditions like those found at tree line – the elevation above which no trees can grow – junipers can display krummholz. Krummholz is the phenomenon whereby trees are dwarfed or contorted by the elements. Among the many varieties prone to the formation of krummholz, junipers can take on some of the most sinuous of forms.
The best specimens I’m aware of can be found near Meiss Meadow in the vicinity of Carson Pass, California. I first visited these trees years ago with Daisaku Nomoto and Boon Manakitivipart. Boon periodically leads groups to the site and for this I’m thankful as it’s one of my favorite alpine hangouts – thanks Boon!
A short walk from the parking lot puts one just above a lush forest of lodge pole pine.
The view to the South – near Carson Pass, California
To the North lies Red Lake Peak.
Scattered juniper and lodge pole pine on Red Lake Peak
At this elevation, around 8,750′, Sierra junipers and a handful of lodge pole pines struggle against the elements. Unbelievably, even young trees can find support in the granite outcroppings.
Young lodge pole pine
Baby Sierra juniper
Given time, some of these specimens will grow a bit larger.
Young Sierra juniper
If the conditions are right, these junipers can grow tall and straight like so many other forest trees. Here’s a juniper growing in good soil that enjoys some protection from the elements.
Vigorous juniper – no evidence of krummholz
About 300 yards away, a juniper hugged the ground against which it grew, unable to grow any higher.
Low profile juniper
The same tree from above
Looking up the mountainside from this point revealed a barren landscape – a shocking contrast to the pine-filled valley below.
A high desert of sorts
It is at this spot – right along tree line – where the interesting junipers grow.
Sprawling juniper with deadwood
These trees can grow in clumps or on their own.
Scattered juniper and pine
The most exciting ones – those that have lived the longest – hugged a granite ridge offering shelter from the wind.
Junipers growing out of the granite
We’ll take a closer look at these next week.