Drought Tolerant Plants: The Junipers

When I first developed a real interest in plants, I was in the heyday of my zine writing career. As my interest in gardening grew, writing a zine about it became inevitable. Initially I envisioned the zine as a journal of sorts – the journal of a budding horticulturist (pun intentional). Since I was new to gardening – and plants in general – the zine was meant to follow my journey as I explored this new world.

A zine needs a name though, so what would I call it? It didn’t take long for me to land on, The Juniper. I was familiar with a common disdain for the unsightly, overgrown, neglected, evergreen shrub full of spiders and cobwebs that for whatever reason was at one point planted right outside just about every house in America (a fire hazard, by the way). I was aware that many people were resorting to tearing them out, cursing as they battled the pokey, dirty, half dead things.

That was basically all I knew about junipers – they were common landscape plants that were just as commonly despised. My affection for freaks, geeks, outsiders, and rejects led me to name my zine after a shrub that everyone hated. I guess I just felt like we had something in common, and that despite being the bane of people’s existence, it deserved some recognition.

the juniper zine

And it does. Junipers are an important species in their natural habitats. In some areas they are dominant features to the point where entire plant communities are named after them. Consider the piñon-juniper woodlands of western North America – prominent steppe habitats that occur throughout high desert regions and support diverse forms of wildlife unique to this part of the world. Dan Johnson writes in the book, Steppes, “the piñon-juniper zone dominates huge expanses of the West in varying stages of  health, providing a wealth of habitats and resources to the wildlife and the people who call it home.”

Johnson goes on to describe some of these habitats:

In the Colorado Plateau this zone is dominated by Pinus edulis and Juniperus osteosperma, with J. scopulorum occupying drainages with more moisture. In the Great Basin, P. edulis is replaced by P. monophylla as the dominant piñon pine, still mixing with J. osteosperma, yet as one moves west, this juniper is increasingly replaced by J. occidentalis. Move farther north, and J. occidentalis dominates completely, with neither piñon pine making an appearance.

The genus Juniperus is in the cypress family (Cupressaceae) and includes up to 67 species, at least 13 of which are native to North America. They are long-lived plants that range from prostrate, sprawling groundcovers to expansive, bushy shrubs to tall, narrow trees. Their foliage is evergreen and can be either needle-like or scale-like. Most juniper species have needle-like foliage in their seedling and juvenile stages and then scale-like foliage at maturity. Some species, like J. communis, never develop scale-like foliage. Junipers are gymnosperms, so their reproductive structures are housed in cones. However, their cones are fleshy and so are commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as berries or fruits. Juniper cones are most often blue or gray-blue, but in some species they have a red, brown, or orange hue.

In general, junipers are quite drought tolerant, particularly those species that are adapted to hot, dry climates. Again referring to piñon-juniper steppes, Johnson writes, “in prolonged periods of drought, the piñon pines seem to suffer long before the junipers; whole hillsides of pine may go brown, leaving islands of olive-green juniper relatively unscathed.” In the book, Shrubs of the Great Basin, Hugh Mozingo attributes this drought toughness to the scale-like leaves: “Because they are smaller and so closely appressed to the twigs, these scale-like leaves are a superior adaptation to the frequently very dry conditions in piñon-juniper communities.” This herculean ability to survive on little water makes them a great addition to a dry garden.

But we may first have to get over our disdain for them. As this post on Chicago Botanic Garden’s website puts it: “Junipers have suffered from overuse and underimagination.” (This article also examines our hatred of juniper bushes). Probably a bigger problem is that, like so many other plants used in a landscape, mature height and width often isn’t taken into consideration, and rather than removing a plant when it gets too big for the site, sheers or a hedge trimmer are regularly deployed. I’m not a huge fan of the sheered look. I much prefer a more natural form to the boxes and globes that are so common in commercial and residential plantings. I’m even less of a fan of the misguided inclination to force a plant to fit in a space that it isn’t meant to be (unless you’re a bonsai artist, I guess). This treatment is what leads to exposing the ugly, brown insides of a juniper shrub – an unsightly look that only makes people hate them more.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in a site that is too small for its britches.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in an improper site.

There are numerous commercially available cultivars of juniper species, offering a plethora of sizes, shapes, and forms as well as various colors of foliage. For small or narrow areas, select dwarf varieties or columnar forms that won’t need to be kept in check, and in all cases let the plant express its authentic self, controlling the urge to sheer and shape it against its will.

As if their natural beauty and low water requirement wasn’t enough, junipers are also great for supporting wildlife. Birds and other animals use them for cover and for nesting sites. The fleshy cones are edible, the shredding bark is used for nesting material, and the evergreen foliage provides much needed protection during winter months. Oh and, among many other benefits that junipers offer humans, their aromatic, fleshy cones have culinary value and are used to flavor gin.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I am opposed to pruning and shaping shrubs. For aesthetic reasons, I think it should be done. However, my opinion is that unnatural shapes should be avoided. Sure, boxed hedge rows have their place in certain types of gardens, but my preference is towards more natural shapes. The following video by University of Illinois Extension provides a brief tutorial on how to achieve that.   

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2 thoughts on “Drought Tolerant Plants: The Junipers

  1. Pingback: Drought Tolerant Plants: The Yarrows – awkward botany

  2. Pingback: 2016: Year in Review – awkward botany

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