Not prickly at all

The Nature of PEI by Gary Schneider

Creeping juniper [submitted]
Creeping juniper [submitted]

Juniper is such a non-descriptive plant name on Prince Edward Island. We often refer to Eastern Larch as juniper, though it is not. Native junipers are shrubs, usually under a meter at their tallest. I have developed a love affair for one of our natives, Creeping Juniper. The other one—Common Juniper—not so much.

Initially, I believed my bias came from collecting seeds from both plants. Common Juniper is a very prickly plant that doesn’t give up its fruits very easily, almost as if it has a grudge against you. Whereas Creeping Juniper is relatively soft and you don’t need to put a death grip on the plants to acquire their bounty.

But really, I just find the Creeping Juniper to be almost off the charts as a beautiful plant. I have written about this before, but sometimes people make the mistake of thinking native plants are somehow inferior in appearance. For many of our natives, such as trilliums, witch hazel, sugar maple, and red oak, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Creeping Juniper is a pale green, needled, low-growing shrub. Personally, I find most Latin names are not very helpful, but Juniperus horizontalis makes total sense to me. Horizontalis is a great description of this plant, even if you don’t speak Latin.  

The needles look more like cedar than anything else. In fact, the plant is sometimes called Creeping Cedar, just to add to the confusion. The pale blue fruits are actually cones, since junipers are conifers. It is extra confusing, since they sure look like fruits, but trust me, they’re not. The “berries” are used to make gin and to flavour foods.

I was introduced to this plant while exploring Krummholz areas—those short, twisted tangly “forests” you’ll find in places along the north shore of this province. One of my favourite spots to see them is around the West Point Lighthouse, growing right in the sand alongside the Poison Ivy.

It grows with little to no attention, and in very dry conditions. Full sun?  It will take all that it can find. Acid soil? No problem. And it seems to have no pest problems, though it is known to be an alternate host to cedar apple rust, a fungal disease that can cause problems in apple and crab apple trees.

As for how it is used by wildlife, in one dune system I found piles of husks that once covered dozens of seeds. Red squirrel? Red fox? I’m not quite sure, though something found the seeds attractive. They are said to be a favourite food of robins, chickadees and waxwings, as well as many mammals.

I don’t see it used much as a landscape plant, but I think it has great potential. It seems to grow in waves, with longer and longer branches cascading down a slope or trailing over a landscape bed. Its gracefulness just adds to its overall beauty.

Creeping Juniper is ranked at an S2 by the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, meaning it is imperiled in the province because of rarity due to very restricted range, very few populations (often 20 or fewer), steep declines, or other factors making it vulnerable to extirpation from the province. You can find it, and you can carefully collect small amounts of seed, but you should never transplant these sweeties from the wild. You’d probably kill them since they would have very small roots, and then you’d have wasted your effort and degraded another ecosystem—something we really don’t need.