General Description / Cultural Significance
The country of Mongolia lies between Russia and China, a location that has brought forth a complex intermixing of history and culture. Gifted with a wide array of varied natural landscapes, Mongolia is home to steppes, deserts, and high mountain ranges with very little of the landscape cultivated for agriculture. Instead, nearly three fourths of the country is pastureland, the lifeblood of the Mongolian livestock herding tradition. The country’s diverse landscape produces a symphony of aromatic experiences, one of the most prominent and culturally significant being the presence of the Juniper Tree, Juniperus, and the striking, earthy scent it brings. Juniper is found growing most commonly in the southern regions of Mongolia and in the rocky slopes of mountains. Juniperus species vary in form from dense shrubs to small trees, all varieties which are hardy enough to grow in the sand dunes of Mongolia and to withstand the country’s long, cold winters.
Across the globe, Juniper serves as an important culinary staple in cold, harsh climates where not much can thrive. Juniper berries are a type of small conifer cone produced by the tree. When they ripen in Mongolia, these purple berries are added to pickled meats and fermented items like bread and sauerkraut for their ability to aid in the fermentation process. The berries are bitter and strong in flavor, with powerful medicinal properties. Traditional Mongolian herbalism utilizes Juniper berries to treat anthrax, lymph disorder, arthritis, and kidney fever. Juniper is also a known diuretic. Through Western medical and culinary influences, Mongolians now use Juniper berries to flavor tea, beer, gin, and liqueur. Steam-distillation extracted essential oil of Juniper is utilized for its fragrance in many body products today.
Burning is another common way to release Juniper’s fresh yet bitter scent. All Mongolians recall the scent of burning Juniper, a common practice since ancient times. The Juniper’s fragrant smoke is said to purify the air of negative energy and evil spirits. This ritual has been performed everywhere from inside small, remote yurts to the palace of Mongolia’s infamous ancient leader Ghengis Khan. During times of strife, Mongolians would burn Juniper, looking to the smoke for a divine indication of whether war was coming. Today, Juniper is commonly burnt during traditional shamanistic ceremonies, but also in Mongolian households for its relaxing effect. Juniper is a key ingredient in a common, homemade Mongolian incense, included in a mixture of cow or horse manure and other aromatic plants such as Thyme.
There are many practices which stem from traditional Mongolian shamanism, one which entails climbing the mountain Darigangyn Altan Ovoo and burning Juniper at the top to express veneration for the mountain. This is one way in which Mongolians pay respect to the mountains and environment they consider sacred and endowed with spirits. This deep connection and appreciation of nature is perhaps why Mongolians have such a longstanding relationship to conserving their natural habitats. As long ago as the twelfth century, Ghengis Khan named the Burkhan Khaldun Mountain of the Khentii Mountain Range a “sacred mountain” of the Mongol people, initiating the ancient culture of conservation. The mountain was officially declared a natural reserve as early as 1294, with several other mountains and mountain ranges earning the same designation soon after. A law was later enacted to call for an annual holiday to worship the Otgontenger Mountain in 1778. To this day, collective appreciation for Mongolia’s landscapes and legal modes of conservation have both served to protect the country’s flora, although new climate-induced threats call for more extreme measures.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
Mongolia has seen its water sources dry up as changing temperatures and desertification eat away at the country’s aquatic ecosystems. This has impacted the migratory cycles of birds which rely on Mongolia’s lakes throughout their journeys. Fires are taking to the vast grasslands, spreading and destroying the steppes and forests. Once common, the nomadic Mongolian way of life has become impossible as the seasonal weather known as “dzud” becomes more erratic and unpredictable. At times, temperatures drop to -50 degrees Celsius, a pattern that once appeared only every 12 or so years and is now frequent. Colder winters mean that Mongolians must burn whatever they can to stay warm, which is coal under the best circumstances, but tires or plastic if nothing else can be found. This is leading to a spike in air pollution and causing pneumonia in both adults and children. In 2018, Mongolia had the highest recorded levels of air pollution, surpassing both Beijing and New Delhi. In response, the government banned the use of raw coal in Ulan Bator in 2019.
The Mongolian government reports that 70% of pastoral land has been degraded and what is left has far less variety of vegetation. These conditions become a huge barrier to the many families that want to return to their herding lifestyles, unable now to yield the fresh food that they have known from their traditional culture. Even though Juniperus is known to be drought resistant, the tree’s distribution seems to be in decline. The increasing loss of Juniper has already been verified in the terrain of Mongolia’s neighbor, China. It is believed that the effects of global warming such as temperature extremes, rainfall unpredictability, and weather changes are the cause. Cattle grazing, prevalent in Mongolia, poses a major threat to the plants’ habitats. Juniperus is a habitat-builder which protects against soil erosion and slows the development of environment-harming debris-mud creeks. Although the trees are hardy, Junipers takes many years to grow to full size and health. If the ancient Junipers of Mongolia disappear or are forced to higher elevations, the forests they’ve nourished for centuries will become degraded, flora composition of entire ecosystems will shift, and the spiritual and cultural customs shared between Mongolians and the Juniper will be changed forever.
General Description / Cultural Significance
Khasag Arts (Mongolian)
Adams, R., and Schwarzbach, A., 2006. A new variety of juniperus sabina from mongolia: j. Sabina var. Mongolensis. Phytologia, 88(2):179.
Bailey, A., 2017. Mongolian nomads say goodbye to herding, hello to smog. PRI: The World. [website]
Convention on Biological Diversity, 2022. Mongolia- Main Details. United Nations Environmental Programme. [website]
Chiu, J., 2016. Climate change in Mongolia destroying pastures on which nomadic herders rely. The Guardian. [website]
Denton, B., 2018. World’s Coldest Capital Chokes on Coal That Sustains It. The New York Times. [website]
Dream Mongolia, 2020. Juniper Burning- Repeal Negative Energy. Dream Mongolia. [website]
Drugs.com, 2022. Juniper. Drugs.com. [website]
Engels, G., 2022. Juniper Berry. American Botanical Council. [website]
First We Eat, 2019. Junipers are First Foraged Food of the Season. First We Eat. [website]
Ju, T. et al., 2021. Reproduction and genetic diversity of juniperus squamata along an elevational gradient in the Hengduan Mountains. Plant Diversity. [website]
Koh, J., 2017. Severe winter killing off livestock in Mongolia. Channel News Asia. [website]
Lv, Z. & Li, D., 2021. The Potential Distribution of Juniperus rigida Sieb. et Zucc. Vary Diversely in China under the Stringent and High GHG Emission Scenarios Combined Bioclimatic, Soil, and Topographic Factors. Forests, 12:1140. DOI:10.3390/f12091140
Permanent Mission of Mongolia to the United Nations. This statement can be found on the World Sensorium original website.
Rahmonov, O., et al., 2017. The human impact on the transformation of juniper forest landscape in the western part of the Pamir-Alay range (Tajikistan). Environ Earth Sci, 76: 324. DOI: 10.1007/s12665-017-6643-4
Sacred Land Film Project, 2021. Mongolia’s Ten Sacred Mountain. Sacred Land Film Project. [website]
The Tree Center, 2022. Daub’s Frosted Juniper – Tree Form. The Tree Center. [website]
World Health Organization, 2013. Medicinal Plants in Mongolia. World Health Organization Regional Office for the Western Pacific. [website]