Helping Junipers

 This past winter was warmer and drier than expected, and as a result, our local California junipers are very stressed following several debilitating drought cycles. Many desert plants have adapted to dropping leaves to reduce evaporation rates during the summer. Others, like the California Juniper retain their green leaves all year long, dropping older leaves as new ones push out. This is noticeable in cultivated junipers and cypresses as well.  Extreme drought reactions may include a more pronounced leaf drop as is happening this year, with the browned leaves evident against the green branches. It is not uncommon to find very old junipers that have just a few live branches coming out of a mostly dead structure, probably survivors of past stressful event cycles. Further compounding the issue, is the rapid spread of mistletoe which can strain the healthiest of plants in drought years.

Juniper dieback.jpg


Bollean mistletoe, Phoradendron bolleanum is a native plant so it is not considered “invasive” in the weedy sense of the word. It has existed probably as long as the juniper. Many species of birds enjoy the mistletoe “berries” which are ingested, digested and then excreted onto juniper branches where the seeds sprout.  From there, the root-like structures, penetrate the branch and feed off the juniper’s mineral and water content. The mistletoe has two root structures, one is called  “haustoria” where it penetrates the phloem, and the other is called “sinkers” where it penetrates the xylem.  Certainly, it would not benefit the mistletoe plant to kill its host, as that would be self-defeating. However, during times of drought or extreme heat, the juniper's vulnerability is exacerbated by the continual drain of resources the mistletoe places upon them.



The mostly mild winter encouraged the spread of mistletoe, due to the lack of freezing cold weather that would normally inhibit the growth cycle.  

So what can be done? Decreasing the burden of mistletoe is something we have been trying here in the Puma Canyon Ecological Reserve. Volunteers are hard at work removing the largest clusters of mistletoe. The clumps are easily removed with gloved hands by snapping the leafy pieces off. Mistletoe is toxic, so it’s important to wear gloves and wash hands afterward. While this does not completely rid the plant of mistletoe, it does buy some time for the junipers to maintain their vitality through the summer months. The birds that depend on the mistletoe berries will still be able to feed on them in the springtime, when the mistletoe produces new growth, but the overall amount of mistletoe present will be greatly reduced for now.

Mistletoe americorps.jpg



Most of us recycle and reuse, thereby reducing our landfill footprint by paying attention to how we dispose of waste.  We’ve been trained to save cans and bottles, put recycled waste into separate containers, maybe even compost our organic matter and dutifully incorporate earth-friendly choices. We teach our children to do the same, and to respect wildlife and to love the earth. Yes, we are real sticklers for the environment, but, yet, we still follow the age-old tradition of releasing balloons for school events, grand openings, weddings, memorial services and other ceremonies. If you think about it, what’s the difference if someone throws a piece of trash out of a car window, or tosses it up into the sky? We never think of where that balloon will end up, but it’s likely it will make it to National Forest land or other wild and open space where it can pose a real risk to wildlife, not to mention, littering areas previously untouched for the most part by humans. It is getting more difficult to find places that are not impacted by humans in one way or another. 

These balloons were found in our Puma Canyon Ecological Reserve in Pinon Hills

These balloons were found in our Puma Canyon Ecological Reserve in Pinon Hills


Both Mylar balloons and latex balloons pose a threat. In addition, the attached ribbons have been known to entangle birds, especially waterfowl and other large birds. There are stories about sea turtles swallowing balloons thinking they are jelly fish, desert tortoises mistaking the bright colors for tasty flowers and marine mammals ingesting them in their normal feeding behaviors. It’s not cool.

Balloons make their way under shrubs that tortoises use for shelter

Balloons make their way under shrubs that tortoises use for shelter


The field crew at Transition Habitat rarely, if ever, return from the field without picking up at least a couple of balloons out of shrubs, cactus or floating across the ground. I was recently exploring in one of our desert project areas and found six separate Mylar balloons within a few acres. Multiply this by millions of acres of private and public wildlands. It’s astounding. These balloons are not going to go away. There are so many ways to celebrate events without using them. All it takes is for the word to get out, for you to stand up against balloon releases in general and suggest alternative ideas to your friends, associates and family.

These latex balloons were found on one of our 80-acre parcels in  tortoise habitat

These latex balloons were found on one of our 80-acre parcels in  tortoise habitat


Contact your area's local Resource Conservation District or native plant nursery to get seeds from local native plants and create native plant seed bombs. Kids can have fun making them and then “plant” the bombs into their own yards. With a little planning, a tree or native shrub can be planted in honor or memory of a loved one. Or how about a Birthday/volunteer day at a local non-profit with donations given in the name of the guest of honor? Clean up a trash-filled lot in your neighborhood, then go home and celebrate. Try to use party supply decorations that can be reused or recycled. Throw bird seed instead of balloons! Think of creative and self-sustaining ways to celebrate while encouraging no waste. -W.Walker

Balloons are making their way into areas previously untouched by humans

Balloons are making their way into areas previously untouched by humans

For more information, read on:

Eco-friendly Party tips

Seed bomb DIY

Tortoises and balloons