Not all junipers are low-growing shrubs. Only a few species naturally develop a low, spreading or prostrate habit, any of which may be referred to as "low-growing." Numerous cultivars of the Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis), common juniper (J. communis), savin juniper (J. sabina), Bonin Island juniper (J. procumbens) and creeping juniper (J. horizontalis) exist, all with mature heights in the range of 4 to 24 inches tall, but spreading 3 to 8 feet wide with great age. Creeping juniper, from North America, typically never grows taller than 4 to 12 inches. Your low-growing juniper may be any of these species, all of which may naturally display lavender to bronze-purple hues in winter.
Low-growing, spreading juniper shrubs provide a low-maintenance, evergreen alternative to cover soil in American gardens. Unlike lawn or flowerbeds, groundcover junipers tolerate heat and dry soils with minimal troubles. Newly emerging foliage on junipers in spring is soft yet prickly, looking very much like short needles, but mature, adult foliage is scalier. Depending on species or cultivar, junipers display green to grayish or blue-green foliage. It's common for all juniper shrub and tree species to modify their foliage colors from fall to early spring, and it's nothing to cause alarm.
Cause of Color Change
As temperatures during both the night and day cool down from fall to winter, juniper foliage modifies its color. During the warmth of spring and summer, the foliage is more vibrant with tones of bright green, soft blue-green or silvery gray-green. Cold air temperatures cause juniper foliage to become drabber in color, usually attaining a blush that ranges from lavender to bronze-purple. Color is subjective. Each species or cultivar may genetically attain a specific hue each winter. For example, in discussing cultivars of J. horizontalis, authors of the "American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants" note that Prince of Wales develops notably purple foliage in winter, while that of Bar Harbor may look mauve and Blue Chip may have purple tips.
The colder the winter, the more color change expected in the foliage of creeping junipers. Many juniper species will survive in regions with both cool, mild as well as brutally cold temperatures, such as in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9. In higher elevations and the northern tier of the United States, winters are longer and colder, resulting in longer displays of deeper purple and bronze hues in juniper needles. By contrast, along the Gulf Coast or in Southern California, the milder temperatures may only cause the normally gray-green juniper needles to have only a hint of bronze or lavender because of limited chill in the nighttime air.
Gardeners should not become alarmed with the blushing of juniper foliage colors in the winter months. Use the seasonal variation as an ornamental quality in the garden's design. The only color change of concern on junipers is when needles turn beige, tan or rusty brown. These colors indicate tissue desiccation or death. Any boughs of creeping juniper that do not lose their bronze, lavender or purplish hues by mid-spring and develop beige colors are dying. Prune out dead juniper limbs to improve the overall look of the plants, allowing any new growth buds to sprout and replace the dead tissues.
- American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants; Christopher Brickell and H. Marc Cathey, eds.
- Growing Conifers; R. William Thomas et al.