Junipers are among the most iconic woody plants of arid regions and a long-time favorites in landscaping. In this article, we’ll cover
What are juniper plants;
What are the best-known juniper species and where are they found;
How to grow juniper trees and shrubs.
What are Juniper plants?
Junipers are members of the Cypress family and are naturally found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. These tough, drought-tolerant conifers come in the form of roughly 60 species, widely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They have a preference for arid, sunny areas, including those in high altitudes. One of the highest treelines on Earth is a juniper forest in southeastern Tibet and the northern Himalayas, at an altitude of 4,900 metres (16,100 ft).
Junipers also perform important environmental roles. The berries (actually modified cones) are a major food source for many birds, including the beautiful cedar waxwing.
In the human realm, junipers are famous for two things – as drought-tolerant, low-maintenance and decorative conifer shrubs or small trees for landscaping and as a trademark addition to gin.
The cultivars are primarily selected for smaller size, slower growth rate, and decorative, dramatic foliage. There are over 400 juniper cultivars – quite an impressive figure for a conifer group.
Common juniper (Juniperus communis)
As the name implies, this is the most widespread juniper of them all. In fact, with its circumpolar distribution, it is the most widespread woody plant species in the world. It is also distinct for its life-long needle-shaped leaves – as most other junipers have scale leaves or needles that turn into scales as the plant matures.
Depending on its surroundings, Common juniper can vary in form. Some, especially in the mountainous areas, grow in the form of low growing shrubs that often create groundcovers; others may grow in the form of a small coniferous tree.
Native to: North America, Europe, northern Asia, Japan
Care tips: Common juniper is hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8. It requires full sun exposure, but it is adaptable to various locations – alkaline and acidic soils, windy locations, etc. In general, it is a low-maintenance, hardy conifer.
Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
This low-growing juniper is native to northern portions of North America, and it is characterized by a shrubby, spreading growth habit that tends to form a groundcover. It is readily employed in landscaping because of its attractive appearance – reflected by the fact that there are over 100 cultivars available.
Native to: North America (Canada and the northern USA)
Care Tips: Creeping juniper is hardy and easy to grow in USDA zones 3 to 9. It is tolerant of various soil types (provided they’re well-drained) and prefers full sun positions. It is excellent to use as a groundcover on tricky slopes where regular mowing is not an option.
Himalayan juniper (Juniperus squamata)
Also known as the Flaky juniper, this is a high-altitude Asian species and another one that comes in the form of a shrub, or rarely a small tree. It has bluish leaves, characteristically flaky bark and a prone or irregularly conical crown.
Although the species is rarely grown, due to the attractive color and compact growth, a number of cultivars were selected; these are readily cultivated far away from Himalayan juniper’s native lands.
Native to: Afghanistan, China, and the Himalayas
Care tips: Unlike some other species, the Himalayan juniper is not very tolerant of heat; the same goes for humidity.
Greek juniper (Juniperus excelsa)
The Greek juniper grows in the form of a large shrub or a small tree. It is quite refreshing in its native Mediterranean landscape due to its grey-green scaly leaves and twisty, often massive trunk – up to 1.8 meters (6 feet) in diameter.
In its natural habitat, it is commonly associated with another juniper species – the stinking juniper (Juniperus foetidissima), which is quite similar in appearance but differs by thicker shoots and greener leaves.
Native to: Eastern Mediterranean
Care tips: Greek juniper is hardy in USDA growing Zones 5 to 9. It requires a full sun position and well-drained soil and does best in a garden setting that looks like its native landscape – dry and rocky. This species may be challenging to find with garden retailers, but it is certainly worth it if you want to add an authentic attraction to a Mediterranean garden.
California Juniper (Juniperus californica)
A large shrub or a medium tree native to the Southwestern USA and main distribution in California, the California juniper is distinct for its blue-grey leaves, dark-reddish cones, and bark that appears “shredded”. Often among the dominant woody species in Californian landscapes, it is also used in xeric gardening or to provide erosion control on dry slopes.
Native to: Southwestern USA
Care tips: This warmth and sun-loving juniper is adapted to USDA zones 8 to 10. As a desert-dweller, it can stand dry spells and requires minimal watering; it is also highly tolerant of alkaline soils. Interestingly, you can also encounter California juniper in the bonsai form.
Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis)
Native to Eastern Asia, this is one of the junipers whose leaves start as needle-like when the plants are young but become scale-shaped as the plant moves towards maturity. The shape depends on the cultivar, but it usually comes in a shrubby form and can create a ground cover.
Besides drought and sun, the Chinese juniper tolerates urban conditions well, so it is no wonder it has become a trendy landscaping plant in the cities. There are over 100 available cultivars selected for various traits, from yellow foliage (e.g., ‘Aurea’) to crown shape (e.g., ‘Columnaris’ or ‘Toruloso’). Bonsai forms are also quite famous.
Native to: Eastern Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Eastern Russia)
Care tips: Chinese juniper grows well in USDA zones 4 to 9. It does not tolerate shade or wet soil but is otherwise undemanding and tolerant. As suggested, landscape use depends very much on the cultivar that dictates the plant’s shape.
Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis)
A large shrub or a small tree with a broad trunk, the Western juniper is common in mid to high latitudes of the American West. The young plants start off with needle-shaped leaves that turn into medium-thick scales. The cones are an essential food source for local wildlife throughout the year, especially for birds. Historically, wood was utilized for various purposes during the pioneer era.
Native to: Mountainous areas of Western North America (California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington).
Care tips: Western Juniper can be grown in USDA Zones 5 to 8; however, this species is rarely used in gardening or landscaping. If it is cultivated in a garden setting, shrub form is preferred.
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
As you may guess by its Latin name, Eastern red cedar is actually a juniper species. It grows in the form of a large upright tree, with blue-green scale-shaped leaves and reddish bark that commonly shreds in vertical strips. It is best known for being exceptionally fragrant – a quality that has made it a favorite for crafting cedar chests and a useful insect repellent.
Native to: Eastern North America
Care tips: Contrary to most species on the list, Eastern red cedar has a good tolerance for moist soils, although not to the point it will tolerate boggy ground. Also, it is quite cold tolerant and can grow in USDA zones 2 to 9. This juniper should not be planted near apple trees or orchards because it acts as a host to cedar-apple rust fungus.
Savin juniper (Juniperus sabina)
This juniper is naturally found in Eurasian Mountains – from Central and Southern Europe to eastern Siberia – at altitudes above 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). It grows as a shrub, variable in shape and size, but is more commonly prostate than upright. The juvenile needle-type leaves grow into mature scale-shaped leaves that are typically more slender and elongated than in the case of most other juniper species.
Native to: Central and southern Europe, western and central Asia (Spain to eastern Siberia).
Care tips: Savin is a popular ornamental. It is crossed with other juniper species to create extravagant hybrids such as Juniperus x pfitzeriana ‘Daub’s Frosted’. It likes full sun and can tolerate various soil types that ideally contain medium levels of moisture. It is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 7.
Shore Juniper (Juniperus conferta)
This Japan-native juniper actually grows on sand dunes rather than on the shorelines, but the name stuck due to the plant’s preference for sandy soils. Growing in a low shrubby manner, it can form a ground cover that is nearly lawn-like in appearance. The berry-cones are black when immature and silverish when mature.
Native to: Japan
Care tips: As said priorly, Shore juniper prefers sandy soil; however, it will tolerate other types of soil, both alkaline and acidic – but only as long they are well-drained. It doesn’t tolerate wet and boggy substrate and is prone to diseases and pests during prolonged wet periods.
We hope that this brief introduction to junipers of the world has been helpful and enjoyable. There are many more species to discover, but if you are looking for a perfect juniper species for landscaping purposes, you will undoubtedly run into many of the listed ones in nurseries and markets.
These hardy and decorative conifers have well-deserved their prominent place in horticulture, and the new cultivars and hybrids continue to add excitement to the juniper cultivation.