Junipers Deserve Recognition

by Jan Cashman

They often get a bad rap, but junipers deserve a place in our landscapes. Junipers are native to Montana, found from Ekalaka to Troy, Plentywood to Lima. From the sites where they’re found growing native, you know they tolerate drought and poor soils. Junipers’ slow rate of growth makes them a good foundation plant; they prune easily and fit well into our native mountain landscapes. Junipers’ unique texture, range of colors, and blue berries add interest to any landscape. Deer usually avoid junipers.

At least three species in the genus Juniperus are native to Montana. Huge native specimens of horizontalis, a low-growing, prostrate species, are found in Eastern Montana. Some are as big as 30 to 50 feet in diameter. Prince of Wales is a dark green, hardy horizontal juniper selected on the Prince of Wales Ranch in Alberta, Canada, north of Browning, Montana, whose tips turn purple in the winter, a trait that is common with many junipers. In our own yard, we have a Prince of Wales juniper planted that grows gracefully over a three foot retaining wall to the ground below. Blue Chip, another good, low-growing horizontal juniper, keeps its outstanding steel-blue foliage all year.

Common juniper (Juniperus communis), a taller (3 to 4 feet) species of juniper growing in the mountains around Bozeman, is seldom sold for landscape use, although common juniper’s unusual, course, texture is interesting.

Driving west on Interstate 90, just past Butte, you can’t miss the native, upright junipers growing there on either side of the road. These junipers are called Rocky Mountain Juniper, (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Butte Hill Variety’). Popular grafted selections of scopulorums include hardy Medora, originating in the Badlands of North Dakota. Blue-tinged Medora grows to 10 to 12 feet with only a 2 to 3 foot spread. Cologreen juniper is another upright with greener foliage. Not all scopulorums have a pyramidal shape, however. Table Top Blue juniper, an beautiful selection with silvery-blue lacy foliage discovered near Helena by Clayton Berg, a local nurseryman, is tall (5’), but with a flat top and wide spread.

Hardy species not native to Montana include chinensis. Chinensis are taller, spreading, vase-shaped junipers. Fifty years ago, Pfitzer junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Pfitzer’) were planted in practically every landscape in North Dakota and Eastern Montana. Today, new, improved varieties of Juniperus chinensis are sold, such as Mint Julep, selected for its graceful, arching branches and mint-green color.

Another spreading species, sabina, includes the selection, Buffalo, a hardy, low-growing juniper that keeps its deep green color year round. While the centers of some of the old types of junipers often became bare with age, Buffalo retains its foliage in the middle. Few junipers are as hardy as the Savin juniper. This old selection is still planted in spots where hardiness and a bit more height (3-5 feet) are needed.

No plant is completely disease and insect free, including junipers. In a wet June, upright junipers can develop orange globules on the foliage from a fungal disease called Cedar Apple Rust. These unsightly globs don’t kill the plant, but can weaken it. Avoid planting upright junipers close to apple trees, since they are this fungi’s cohost. Tiny spider mites attack upright junipers and, if left unchecked, can weaken or kill the plant. Hard-to-control voles eat the bark of junipers in the winter.

The many species of junipers provide different shapes, textures, colors, and uses in our landscapes –screening, ground cover, bird habitat. Junipers don’t require any special care. They grow well in full sun with minimal water. Upright varieties keep their neat, pyramidal shape by pruning them in June. Spreading junipers look more natural left unpruned.

Besides junipers’ landscape uses, their hard, fragrant wood is used for unusual furniture pieces, lamps, and fence posts. Juniper berries are used to flavor gin. Whether you plant only natives in your yard, or just want an interesting, water-wise landscape, you can’t go wrong with junipers.