Junipers can be confusing plants when you first start gardening. Someone will casually say, “It’s a juniper” when pointing at almost anything from a tall tree or a narrow, upright shrub, to something a few inches tall creeping across the ground. It might have fuzzy or smooth leaves, and it could be green, blue, yellow, gold or any combination of those colors. Naturally this is a bit puzzling to beginnings. Let’s sort out these plants, because junipers are undoubtedly among the toughest and most reliable of evergreens, able to thrive in both cold and heat, and in poor soil too, with few pests or problems. Even deer usually leave them alone.
Why Choose Junipers
Before exploring the world of junipers, let’s consider why you will almost certainly want to use them in your garden and landscaping. For starters, there are junipers for almost all climates. Even in zone 3, where evergreen choices are very limited, a whole host of junipers will thrive. At the other extreme there are junipers that revel in the heat and dryness of zones 9 and 10, and that take extreme drought conditions. For exposed situations, especially hot, sunny places, junipers have to be a top choice plant. The same is true of soil. Sandy soils, as well as heavy clays, don’t bother most of them, and if you have rocky, poor-soil areas that need plants, they should be high on your list.
The only thing junipers don’t like is shade and wet soil. Save them for sunshine and dryness. They will tolerate a little shade for a few hours a day, but the growth will be thinner, and the colors noticeably weaker. Wet soil is the leading cause of juniper blight – a nasty disease that causes the tips of the shoots all over the plant to turn brown. Sometimes this will kill the whole plant, and its certainly makes it unattractive. Make sure the place you are thinking of is well-drained and sunny.
A second good reason to use junipers is their remarkable range of sizes and shapes. No matter what you are looking for, from a thin pencil of foliage making an exclamation point in your landscape (Skyrocket Juniper for example) or a low-growing plant to cover the ground and cascade over rocks (e.g. Blue Rug Juniper), with everything in between, there is a juniper for every purpose. Some can be clipped into neat formal shapes (Spartan Juniper makes great cone-shaped specimens), while others become twisted, exotic, eye-catching focal points (the Hollywood Juniper).
Then there is color. Most Junipers have a bluish tint to their green leaves, but some are super-blue, like the Blue Star Juniper, or the Wichita Blue Juniper. Others are brilliant gold, like the Sea of Gold Juniper, and this usually lasts all winter, unlike many other golden evergreens, that fade to light green by late summer. All in all, there are lots of good reasons to love junipers!
One less obvious point about junipers is their variable foliage. When fresh from the seed all junipers have short, pointed leaves that stick out from the stems, but this juvenile foliage is normally lost soon, and becomes scale-like instead, clinging tightly to the stems. Some special forms retain juvenile foliage, like the Blue Star Juniper, and this gives them a softer, ‘fuzzy’ look. It also makes them look very unlike most other junipers, which can be confusing.
Meet the Junipers
The reason why Junipers are so tough and versatile is because most of them grow naturally in pretty rugged places – mostly on mountain tops, or in dry, rocky areas where other trees can’t survive. Because of this they show an extraordinary degree of variability and produce seedlings that are often very different from each other. This means for the species that some might have a chance of survival, no matter what the conditions they encounter. It also means that gardeners can select the most interesting and colorful seedlings to create something unique, which is how many of our juniper varieties arose.
Junipers grow all across the northern hemisphere, with native species here in North America, across in Europe, through the Middle East and central Asia, and all the way into China, Korea and Japan. It helps to be aware of the main species, as we can then often predict how best to grow the different varieties they have produced. Let’s take a look at a few of them – there are 50 to 60 in total, but only a handful are grown in gardens.
Common Juniper – Juniperus communis
This plant has the distinction of being the most widely distributed plant on the planet, stretching all the way around the polar regions, in both North America, Europe and Siberia. Wherever you grow it, you are growing a ‘native’ tree, and a tough one it is, growing reliably all the way form zone 2 to zone 8 – no problems there at all. A little strangely, it is not as common in gardens as many others are, but it does come in a variety of forms, from upright forms like the Pencil Point Juniper (J. communis ‘Compressa’) and the famous Irish Juniper (‘Hibernica’), to spreaders like the variety called ‘Green Carpet’.
Chinese Juniper – Juniperus chinensis
This species, which comes from China, Japan, Korea and southeast Russia, is widely represented in gardens, with over 100 forms recognized. Not quite as cold hardy as the common juniper, it still thrives from zone 4 right through zone 9. This very variable species can show some of the best blue foliage available, such as in the variety ‘Blue Point’, with great all-year blue on an upright plant that is perfect for screening or specimens. It also has golden forms, such as ‘Golden Glow’, which is more spreading, and a great foreground plant for year-round color. This list of Chinese juniper varieties is endless, and they are all great low-maintenance garden plants, but one should get special mention. A personal favorite, I never understand why this plan is not more widely grown. The Hollywood Juniper is one of the most striking plants around. Each one is unique, with twisted branches that spread in every direction, and foliage that begins more normally, but becomes dense and coral-like on mature stems. It also produces profuse crops of blue juniper berries (actually cones) that both decorate the plants for months and are great for home-made gin(!). Called either ‘Torulosa’ or ‘Kaizuka’, this tree is really worth growing – I guarantee you will love it, just give it room to spread as it chooses.
Rocky Mountain juniper, Juniperus scopulorum
As the name tells us, if you want to grow a truly North America juniper, then this is it. The ever-popular narrow upright variety called ‘Skyrocket’ has been a firm favorite since the 1960s, when it was discovered, and the similar ‘Blue Arrow’ is at least as striking (oops, bad pun), and more disease resistant too.
Pfitzer Juniper, Juniperus x pfitzeriana
This is certainly the most widely planted juniper, and perhaps the most widely planted garden plant of all. It also often misplanted, with gardeners having no idea that the cute little plant, with its attractive arching foliage, will in time grow into an impressive small tree, many feet across. Some of the many selected forms are much smaller, so choose wisely. This hybrid plant is a cross between the Chinese Juniper and the Savin Juniper (Juniperus sabina), but it was a plant found in the wild, not produced in a garden. It has a beautiful arching form, with branches rising at about 45o, and with slightly pendulous tips. It’s is widely grown as a mid-sized spreading evergreen, but the many selected forms – which were found as ‘odd’ branches on existing plants – include ones with golden foliage, such as Sea of Gold (‘Monsan’) and ‘Daub’s Frosted’, which are even more attractive than the blue-green original.