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Junipers are Versatile and Varied

This article was first published on 17 Jul 2018.

Juniperus rigida var conferta

Juniperus rigida var conferta

Photo by the Otago Daily Times

From tall, pencil shaped trees to ground hugging shrubs, junipers come in many shapes, sizes and colours. Belonging to Cupressaceae, the cypress family, these conifers are widespread throughout the northern hemisphere. There are over sixty species, most of which have prickly, needle-like, juvenile leaves which mature to softer foliage. If you are unsure if a young conifer is a juniper – stick your hand into it!

The other tell-tale characteristic which distinguishes junipers from other conifers is the female cone: fleshy scales are fused together to form a ‘berry’. Juniperus communis berries give the unique flavour to gin (unripe green berries) and general cooking (ripe black berries). Not all juniper berries are edible though; many are very bitter and a few species are poisonous.

In general junipers like plenty of sun, and will tolerate poor, dry soils so are a useful landscaping plant.  Conifers usually should be pruned lightly and often, however, many junipers will respond very well to heavy pruning and even re-sprout from bare wood.

Juniper species are very variable, and hundreds of cultivars have been chosen from both the wild and through cultivation to provide us with a huge variety of garden plants. There are about fifty different species and cultivars growing at Dunedin Botanic Garden. These range from the tiny exclamation mark of Juniperus communis 'Compressa' in the rock garden to the prostrate shore juniper, Juniperus rigida var. conferta in the conifer cultivar collection, to the group of large specimen trees in the arboretum.