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An alternative to juniper plants

When a gardener thinks of low growing, evergreen groundcover shrubs, the most common plants mentioned are junipers. Junipers have many merits that make them fine groundcover choices. They are drought-tolerant, spread nice, and come in a wide range of textures and shades of green. But, junipers also have their drawbacks. These plants do not do well in any amount of shade and are host to diseases. In addition, many gardeners, myself included, find their prickly texture irritating to the skin. I break out in a rash anytime junipers touch my skin.

Because of juniper's limitations, more and more gardeners are using Siberian or Russian cypress, (Microbiota decussata) in their landscapes. Before we get into the specific attributes of the plant, a little botany and history on this plant might be appreciated.

This conifer belongs to the family Cupressaceae and is somewhat closely related to junipers (Juniperus) and true cypress (Cupressus). In the wild, the plants hail from mountainous areas of eastern Siberia. Due to the remote location, this plant was not discovered until 1923. With all the secrecy between the former USSR and the western world, this plant only became known to the western world in the 1970s!

The plant is quite low - generally 18 inches in height - but can spread up to 7 feet. The foliage is evergreen and arranged in flattened sprays with scale-like leaves. The cones are very small and rather insignificant. Summer foliage is bright green but from late fall to mid-spring, plants turn purplish-brown. The winter color provides a wonderful contrast in the winter garden, especially combined with golden-colored conifers and ornamental grasses.

This conifer is exceptionally hardy (zone 3 or sheltered areas of zone 2) and in the landscape, can easily rival the best spreading or creeping junipers. However, in my opinion, Siberian cypress surpass junipers since they do not suffer from the host of pests and diseases that plaque junipers. Full sun is best but they will tolerate more shade than junipers. They are not fussy as to the soil as long as it is well-drained and not too alkaline.

So, if you have a problem spot in a relatively open site and junipers are just not up to spec, then try growing Siberian cypress. Some call it the groundcover of the future!

Anne Lenox Barlow is a professional horticulturist who enjoys gardening with her family in Plattsburgh. She also chronicles her gardening experiences at her blog www.northcountrygarden.wordpress.com. She can be reached at a.lenox.barlow@gmail.com.

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