Eric’s Pet Plant: Juniper ( Juniperus species)

OK, it’s officially evergreen season, when gardeners’ thoughts turn to plant material that does not shed its leaves and (in most cases) does not add any more brown to the landscape. That’s gardeners. Everyone else of course is thinking – or trying not to think – about Holiday/Solstice/Christmas trees.

I have already tied a shortbread recipe to these ubiquitous conifers and my strong feelings about them, but our friend Eric over at Yale has been inspired in a whole different direction. If you choose junipers, you’re not just honoring a symbol, you’re getting rid of pests.

blue star juniper

Recently planted ‘Blue Star’ Juniper. It will take about a decade to reach full size.

“Our Juniperus squamata ‘BlueStar’ shows how it got its name in this image,” says Eric. “It will take ten years or so to become 3 feet in spread and almost that in height. That slow growth combines with its excellent coloration to make it a good choice for the mixed border.”

Junipers (Juniperus species)

By Eric Larson

Back before they were overrun by Christians, (nobody was checking green cards, I guess) the pagans in northern Europe had rituals celebrating cosmological and seasonal events:  the longest day of the year, the spring and fall equinoxes and of course, after the shortest day of the year, the returning sunlight that brought great joy to the people.

If it seems like the days are about three hours of sunlight this time of year here in New Haven, imagine what it might have been like in England, for instance, back in the days before even candles: “So, seeing as how we have all this beer that we put up over the summer, and someone just brought in a stag which we will slap onto the barbie, let’s have a party!”

The tradition was to bring into the hut, the cave or the lean-to during the fall some evergreen branches, to supposedly pay homage to the everlasting and returning quality of life. If there were berries involved, that was even better, as this denoted vigor and fertility, bestowing on the household those qualities.

I suspect that there were other reasons for this decorating motif: perhaps there were some pesticidal qualities in the evergreens they chose, good for keeping nits to a minimum. The distaff members of the household might have insisted that these boughs be brought in to be used as crude brooms during the long winter months.

The berries were probably used as marbles by the kids, in the dark days before the X-Box 360. Who knows? But the fact remains that the precedent for our Christmas tree lies in the golden pagan past, when life was simpler and NERVRACC was as yet an undiscovered syndrome.

Junipers are among the conifers that do have some pesticidal qualities (think cedar chest). There are around fifty or sixty species within the genus Juniperus, which is also the Latin name for a species native to Europe. This genus, along with about thirty other genera, resides in the stately Cypress family, Cupressaceae.

Junipers in the Landscape and Garden

Junipers are tough plants, growing in poor rocky alkaline soils, sometimes very thin on the surface or bedrock or caliche. Some species are very large, growing to almost a hundred feet in height, and some are quite diminutive. Many of the best for gardens stay very short but spread amiably along the ground, as if to say, “That’s okay, you have your head in the clouds; I’ll just crawl along the ground and keep my expectations low.”

blue rug juniper as erosion control

These Juniperus horizontalis will slowly fill in to form a handsome, low-maintenance erosion control.

This new planting of  the low-growing Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Rug’ is a good use of the plant in protecting the soil on a hillside.  I will plant Crocus species in this area next year. As the juniper slowly grows out around the planting, the crocus will pop up through its steel blue-green boughs to provide spring color, and then their foliage after flowering will be hidden within the juniper’s spread.

Regardless of size, all junipers are sun loving and almost all are easy to grow. They offer a wide variety of foliage colors, from dark green to mid-green, yellow-green to blue-green, and some of them are very striking.

There are also two foliage types: the needled and the scale. Needled foliage is sharp and somewhat stiff, while the scale type is softer to the touch. Most species have one or the other, but there are a number that have both.

In those that have both, the prickly type, often referred to as ‘juvenile’ foliage (think teenager), is found on the outer growth of the branches. As the branches mature, the foliage changes to the softer scale type.

Because they come in so many sizes, shapes and colors, junipers are the evergreen of a thousand uses. They can be used as accents, in foundation plantings, as hedges, in the mixed border and in plantings for wildlife.

Growing juniper is easy, especially if you give it full sun. We have several specimens in light shade that seem to be doing well, but they not only grow better in full sun, they also show off their foliage color better in good light.  There are no real pests to worry about, although there are several fungal diseases, including a rust (Cedar/Apple Rust) and a tip-blight,  that will crop up from time to time.

Non-landscape Uses of Juniper

* Juniper, specifically J. virginiana, the Easter Red-Cedar, is used (this is the pesticidal part) for lining drawers and closets to discourage the wool moth. The common name using the word ‘Cedar’ is misleading: this species is unquestionably a Juniper, not a true Cedar like the Cedar of Lebanon.

* Juniper berries should not be eaten in any quantity, but they are used as a spice in a wide range of cuisines, and they are also one of the flavorings in gin. One of the most important flavorings, actually, the origin of the word ‘gin’ is ‘genever,’ the Dutch word for juniper.

* There are more than a few widely spread tribes of prehistoric people who lived in or near juniper forests and depended on them for fuel and material for shelter and tools. The trees were thought to be symbols of long life, prowess and fecundity.

* In Morocco, the sap , called ‘gitran’ of the arar tree (J. phoenicea) is applied in spots on the lips of drinking cups. It makes the water more fragrant and also strengthens the teeth. There also might be some anti-parasitic quality that western medicine hasn’t discovered.

* The First Peoples of the Americas used juniper to treat diabetes, and also as a female contraceptive.

* The noted 17th Century herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper promoted juniper to treat asthma and sciatica, and also to speed childbirth.

large, spreading Juniperus chinensis

This juniper was here when I arrived and there is no record of its exact species, but I'm pretty sure there's at least some J. chinensis in its parentage.

J. chinensis is large  for a shrub, growing to about 20 feet tall. It also spreads nicely, so don’t plant too close to the house: you’ll regret having to disfigure it with the pruning that would be necessary. The front of this specimen is an example of bad pruning provided to us by the contractor who installed the ‘waffle-block’ road in the foreground.

(Juniper pruning is a somewhat vexed subject; my advice on same can be found at Juniper Needs Pruning, Eats Path, or The Heap Revisited. LL)

Back here in Evergreen Season, an Invitation:

Please join all of us at Marsh Gardens on Friday December 10, from five to eight, for A Holiday in the Tropics, our version of the seasonal festive gathering.  While we try to keep the religious connotations to a minimum, if someone breaks out into a carol, we wouldn’t call the police. We do have light refreshments, we lead tours of the glass houses (and what could be better on a dark December evening) and we provide live music – as opposed to the dead kind, which we do at our Halloween party.

Special guest artist this year will be Michael Ward on violin, whose work has been recorded on at least four CD’s. He has been in several Philadelphia-based Irish and mixed-genre bands and is now performing regularly in that city, that of the Brotherly Love. (I’m sure that Sisters are well regarded there as well.)

We are lengthening the usual party time to allow for the attendance as guests of the staff of what is in my opinion the BEST GROCERY in Connecticut, if not the whole East Coast. Whitneyville Food Center is the vendor we use for the light refreshments, and I have to admit that in an informal poll run by the same company that the Tappet Brothers use (Merki Research), attendees at our events responded that they come for the food and tolerate the music, especially the bass playing.

Disclaimer: These columns are well-meaning but flawed creations of the author, whose ardent secular humanist and socialist views are in no way reflective of Yale University, Marsh Botanical Garden, Leslie Land –  or the author’s family and friends.

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