Moving past my fear

Many years ago, when I was a very young man, I had the opportunity to work for two different landscape companies. Both were small companies where I was the only regular employee. One focused on maintaining the landscapes surrounding commercial properties while the other had its niche in the gardens of homeowners.

One of the very first jobs I had was to clean the trash that had collected in a very long row of Tam Juniper (Juniperus sabina var. tamariscifolia). This was also essentially my first formal introduction to working with conifers, and more specifically with Junipers.

Juniperus communis 'Compressa'
The “Italian Cypress” for Zone 4 gardens, Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ is perfect where a tall, narrow plant is desired.

Now, you may be familiar with this particular form of Juniper since it has been used in the landscape and listed in catalogs for a great number of years. In fact, I found that it had been introduced to Britain in 1562 and had specific uses in the medicine of the day. In more recent history, for a number of years, it was one of the most over-planted conifers in landscapes in the USA because it was easy to grow and inexpensive to purchase. It may also be the single most influential reason for folks to decide that they dislike conifers. It is very prickly, quickly outgrows its space, is very painful to prune and is very deep-rooted making its removal a tremendous undertaking.

My first experience certainly did not endear me to the plant and it definitely gave me a bias against the entire genera of Juniperus. I was working hard at the task described earlier, removing trash that had blown in and under the long row of plants that had, at this time, attained a height of four feet and a spread twice as wide. There must have been thirty of these in a long row separating two sections of a parking lot. I was carefully pulling out the trash, reaching deep as I could reach into the extremely sharp and prickly foliage that smelled as if every dog (and cat) in a square mile had marked the hedge with their scent. Half way through this very uncomfortable job, I was attacked by a Yellow Jacket wasp, which suddenly flew out of the foliage and stung me on my left cheek, just an inch away from the corner of my mouth. This was when I learned of my sensitivity to wasp venom.

Juniperus communis 'Corielagen'
‘Corielagen’ is an ideal groundcover with extreme hardiness into Zone 3.

Fortunately I was not allergic – as in go into anaphylactic shock – though the left side of my face swelled up, hurt like heck, and itched for days afterward. Yes, that was the day which began my strong dislike of Junipers in general, and the Tam Juniper specifically.

As they say, time heals all wounds, and as I mentioned earlier, I am beginning open up to the fact that there really are some great garden junipers! There is one species in particular that I am finding I am quite fond of. This species of Juniper includes dwarf plants in a number of shapes and forms and colors – some even changing colors through the seasons.

Juniperus communis 'Oblonga Pendula'
Juniperus communis ‘Oblonga Pendula’ is a stately specimen with wispy weeping branches.

In the past, I have mentioned Juniperus communis ‘Kalebab’ for its striking, wispy form and dramatic color show, check out that post here. I also want to mention a great ground covering form called ‘Corielagen’ with its deep, rich green foliage and wide-spreading, ground-hugging form. ‘Gold Cone’ is a beautifully dramatic pillar of gold. In my area, I find that a light shearing once a year helps keep this one in top form. One of the best spire shaped conifers that you can find is ‘Compressa’, whose narrow, upright form is clothed in bluish-gray-green foliage, depending on the time of year. It is one of the most narrow conifers, and it may be considered the “Italian Cypress” for Zone 4 gardens. Finally, ‘Oblonga Pendula’ is a magnificent specimen with grass-green, weeping foliage, which takes on plumb tones during the cold winter months. It may be a bit of a character when young, with fringed arms splaying this way and that, but as it begins to mature it becomes a stately specimen that may be planted as a focal point, or in a group or row to make a very pleasant background for other smaller conifers and specialty plants.

Ed-
Conifer Lover

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15 thoughts on “Moving past my fear

  1. Nice post and I, too, had to overcome juniper-fear. I appreciate your giving some space and some respect to this under-respected genus! Locally here they get even less respect, as Marin County, just to the south, has deemed them (that would be Juniperus communis only) one of the most ‘fire prone’ plants, so many non-gardeners have decided that junipers are downright evil. I’d say that your photos show that Juniperus communis is anything but common. I have a baby ‘Oblonga Pendula’ and I can’t wait until it looks like the one in your photo.

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  2. Hi Ed… I also have had a distaste for (some) junipers over the years. The first reason involves the rash that they can cause on my exposed skin which is quite a discomfort to say the least. The second has to do with the cedar-apple rust situation since I grow many crab apples. To my limited knowledge that is hosted by red cedar, but I have concerns that other junipers might be a problem as well, so please feel free to educate me in that regard. Unfortunately I recently noticed that the neighbors had added plants that can serve as hosts, so my efforts may prove to be in vain.

    I am discovering a number of junipers that really can add a lot of color and texture to the gardens and even purchased a Gold Cone just yesterday and added a Daub’s Frosted a couple weeks ago.

    Finally I say thank goodness for conifers… after a lot of seven week early 80’s we are in the mid-May portion of our bloom cycle here in Wisconsin. I just finished spreading and wrapping what feels like a half acre of burlap in prep for the 20’s tonight. I was disheartened after watching the weather this evening to find out that the next month may involve freezing temps and perhaps even colder than usual for the norm at this time of year. With Japanese maples leafed out and magnolias in full bloom, as well as other trees ready to bloom and hundreds of hostas inches above ground, this seems difficult to say the least. For now I will continue the battle, but it has become tiring and I may have to give in to this year’s odd weather at some point. Larry

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    1. Congratulations on the ‘Gold Cone’ and the ‘Daub’s Frosted’ – both are excellent garden Junipers! I think we may be past our odd late winter now. The rain has warmed up considerably and it we have actually seen the sun for the past couple of days.

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  3. In Hort school’s Plant I.D. class, I remembered the name of the Tam Juniper by thinking “Damn Juniper”. Hope that’s okay to say.

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  4. Hi Ed, thanks for sharing so much about conifers. You’ve given me some great ideas. Here’s a question: what are some male cultivars of common juniper? I’ve begun collecting female common juniper specimens to get cones for the birds, but keep reading that they’ll set more cones if pollinated by a nearby male. Can’t seem to find any cultivars described as male in my online research, and buying a tray of unsexed plugs just isn’t practical in my suburban circumstances! Can you help?

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    1. Hi Bridget, it has been a great many years since I have studied botany, but I believe that all gymnosperms (conifers) have both male and female reproductive organs. Which probably explains why you cannot find any information regarding male cultivars. I am not aware of any conifer that is dioecious – having its male and female sexual organs on separate plants. (Ginkgo biloba is sometimes grouped with conifers, but is really does not fit within that group, one reason being is that it is dioecious.)

      Ed-

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      1. Hi Ed,

        Thanks for responding so quickly. I’m amazed by how many trees and shrubs are dioecious. Who knew?! Yes, apparently junipers are dioecious with occasional exceptions among individual shrubs within a species. Some cultivars are female clones and others are male clones. Eastern Red Cedar cultivars are usually labeled as male or female, or at least if it’s not stated on the label at the garden center a little online research will tell you, but I have not been able to find Common Juniper cultivars identified as male. Amidak, a.k.a Blueberry Delight, is obviously female because it produces abundant cones, and I know Gold Cone is also female because it develops cones as well, but descriptions of both cultivars state that they may only set cones if a male cultivar is planted nearby. The main reason I’m planting junipers is to help feed birds in the winter, so it’s important to me that I find that elusive male… Perhaps I just have to find one that doesn’t produce cones in the fall and assume.

        I was also wondering if a male Eastern Red Cedar would pollinate a common juniper female…

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      2. Well, there you go – hopefully I’m not too old to remember this coniferous tid-bit. :^)

        I was watching birds feeding on the seeds of a large Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ this morning. As the birds were feeding, some of the small, winded seeds were caught by a breeze and were whirling down to the ground all around me. Although I’ve known that many birds do love conifer seed, I had never witnessed the birds feeding in this particular tree before. Perhaps it was the rarity of a sunny and warm spring morning which timed well with the perfect ripeness of the seed. Back to the topic at hand, I had never really given much thought to the reproductive processes of the genera Juniperus – probably due to my own personal aversion to Junipers as mentioned in this post. But, as you mention, Juniper can also be a great food source for the birds, so I shall certainly pay more attention now that you have awakened me anew.

        I just came in from a stroll around my garden and found two Juniper cultivars that may be of interest to you. First is Juniperus communis ‘Corielagen’ which is absolutely covered with pollen cones right now. A slight brush across the foliage releases an abundant cloud of pollen. Although ‘Corielagen’ is a low, spreading cultivar, I have to believe that at least some of its pollen would make it to the female cones of taller plants. You might even consider collecting the pollen and shaking it over and around the plants you hope to pollinate.

        The second possibility is Juniperus conferta ‘Silver Mist’ – another ground covering cultivar that is covered with pollen cones right now. I do not know how effective cross-species pollenation may be, but it is quite a nice cultivar and it certainly couldn’t hurt to have it in your garden.

        I must say, you’ve made me curious. :^)

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      3. Hi again – recently found out that the Reedak Copper Delight Juniper is the recommended pollinator for Amidak Blueberry Delight. Now the challenge is to get my hands on one!

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  5. Hi – a year later I’m just seeing your reply for the first time. Thanks so much. I will look into the possible pollinators you mention.

    Best wishes,

    Bridget

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