Juniper Drawbacks

Juniper is so good, but it's also a bit of a gamble.
Juniper is so good, but it’s also a bit of a gamble.

I’ve posted about juniper on this blog before, and there’s no doubting that it is the best form of native upland cover for wild birds. In fact, it would be very difficult to imagine a better species than juniper when it comes to providing shelter, cover and food for gamebirds in general (and black grouse in particular), the only problem being that they have the reputation of being extremely slow growing. I planted a few junipers four years ago when I first started work up on the hill, and while they may have grown a few inches, most have simply held their ground and, at best, changed shape slightly. I was prepared for them to be slow-growing plants, and while I am quite impatient when it comes to plants and trees, I know that the junipers will be worth it in the long run.

Juniper is an endangered species in Britain at the moment – a fact reflected in the fairly hefty price tag which accompanies the plants. From what I can gather, it is a difficult plant to produce commercially, hence high prices from the nurseries. It’s not the end of the world to be paying almost treble for juniper by comparison with birch or blackthorn, but it does put a cap on rolling it out on a large scale. The jist of what I have planted so far as been small patches here and there, even though I have no doubt that putting in four or five acres would start to really make a difference to the hill. That said, there is something not quite right about planting juniper trees. I only know of three or four people who have put in significant numbers of juniper trees in Galloway, and I don’t think that any of them have found berries yet. The proportion of viable seed certainly declines as plants get older, but for the trees not to be producing any berries at all, even after twenty years, seems a little unusual. I even found a stand of half a dozen junipers on a neighbouring piece of land which were inexplicably dying at just twenty years old. Inevitably, there are a range of possible explanations for why transplanted junipers don’t seem to thrive, and it would be interesting to get to the bottom of it once and for all.

As much as I’d like to make that comittment to juniper and get behind it, there is an additional problem waiting in the wings, besides slowness of growth, price and apparent fickleness. A new type of plant-killing water mould has appeared in Britain over the past three years which shows a marked interest in killing juniper trees. Phytophthora austrocedrae has cropped up in the Pennines, as well as in Perthshire and the Highlands, and if it’s anything like as difficut to contain as the other members of the Phytophthora family, it could well be a major problem for the last few colonies of juniper across the country. The Forestry Commission have been talking about it HERE, and a new Heather Trust briefing will soon appear for anyone interested.

With that in mind, I can’t help thinking that juniper is not something that I can really invest in whole-heartedly. I am on an extremely tight budget with my project, and the idea of spending (a great deal of) money on a plant which could well turn up its toes at a moment’s notice is not very pleasing. While juniper is a fantastic plant which deserves to be used, conserved and re-planted, it could be that I will have to wait for a few years and see what will become of this disease before making any serious investment in it.

“Serious investment” does not preclude dabbling, however. Half a dozen young juniper plants arrived on my doorstep this morning after a successful auction on eBay, so while I am worried about investing in the future of the species, I can’t resist dipping my toe in the water. More on these plants soon…

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