The Trouble with Juniper

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Planted in 2012, this young juniper trees requires annual maintenance

I wish I could commit myself to juniper. It is a superb and truly native plant, and it provides birds and wildlife with phenomenal dense cover throughout the year. I love the scent of the sprigs and their berries, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen black grouse enjoying the shelter and protection of juniper during the cold winter days –

But it’s just such an awkward species to work with. At the establishment stage, it’s ponderous and moribund, resigning itself to the slightest challenge with a kind of fatalistic hypochondria. The difficulty of producing juniper commercially means that it’s often several times more expensive to buy than other comparable species, and when you are paying for trees out of your own pocket, that’s a hard pill to swallow, particularly when those valuable plants are inclined to just turn up their toes and die.

It is not as if juniper doesn’t thrive in Galloway – there are ancient, truly native stands of juniper along the Solway coast and on islands in the highest hill lochs – most of these plants owe their survival to a lack of sheep, deer or rabbits, but they hint at a much wider historic distribution of the plant. I would love to see juniper restored to its former glory, but I just don’t feel that the species is suited to artificial planting and cultivation. Having travelled around to visit woods where juniper has been planted in Galloway over the past few years, I’ve never seen the trees really prosper. One or two have produced berries, but most have shuddered themselves either into stasis or death after fifteen or twenty years. It doesn’t help that Britain now plays host to a new and exotic mould pathogen which kills juniper trees for sport – we don’t have Phytophthora austrocedrae in southwest Scotland (yet), but it is playing havoc with some areas of juniper in northern England, and Galloway is already a hotbed for the related P. ramorum, which has killed hundreds of thousands of larch trees in the last decade.

When I first started work on the Chayne, I planted several dozen junipers (despite the eye-watering bill from the nursery), but perhaps only one or two have really established into recognisable plants. The rest either cower in agonised indecision or have shuffled off their prickly coils. A few show promise, but they grow so slowly that every year they are smothered by the surrounding vegetation and have to be painstakingly cut out of the grass and rushes before they vanish altogether. I rescued several yesterday afternoon on a day of rushing clouds and cold wind – they have grown (a little) since they were planted in 2012, but without constant maintenance and supervision they would surely have died by now. They might soon be tall enough to dominate the grass and rushes around them, but what will be their future after this point? Will they pine away into pathetic failure, or might they finally “take” and begin to make some real progress?

As I understand it, juniper varies widely at a genetic level between regions. I marvel at juniper trees in the Pennines which resemble acacias from the African bosveldt, but the same species is more likely to be a low-growing bush in Angus and Aberdeenshire. Most of the juniper I have found in Galloway is of a sprawling, shrubby kind (with a notable exception being the phenomenal, almost primordial juniper wood at Tynron near Moniaive). At terrific effort and expense, I invested in a dozen cuttings from local juniper stock in an attempt to find out whether or not “Galloway” genetics would improve survival rate in my plantations, but these all foundered and died within a few months – it is a sensitive, delicate sloth of a plant – slow to prosper and quick to take mortal offence.

There is no doubt that the west of Scotland is wetter now than it was fifty years ago, and perhaps a trend towards wetter conditions in the west is discouraging juniper growth. To be sure, I have only ever seen the plant really prosper in lighter, better drained soils in the east of the country, so perhaps we’re seeing some effects of a changing climate. I specifically targeted light, well-drained soils when I came to plant my junipers, but ironically the plants which have fared best were on thick peat amongst deep rushes.

The dearth and failure of juniper is disappointing on the Chayne, but disaster can be just as instructive as failure. My tree budget will go on downy birches and alders in 2017 – both of these are bomb-proof “bankers”, but I will continue to care for the handful of junipers which have now established themselves – perhaps in due course they will reveal some new secret for success.

 

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