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.
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.
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.
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.