Home & Garden Columns

Hooray for Hollywood Junipers

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday May 30, 2006

Hollywood juniper—Juniperus chinensis “torulosa” or J. chinensis “Kai-zuka”—is one of those trees you know even if you’ve never heard of it. It’s all over the place, one of those Sunset magazine California place markers, the twisty green thing waving its arms outside half the apartment buildings on the West Coast. It’s a city feature like pigeons, and like pigeons you hardly ever see a dead one.  

The Hollywood part of its name is apt: left to its own devices, the thing has a distinct tendency towards the dramatic. (I confess I think of it as Juniperus histrionicus; I suppose I’m analogizing from Histrionicus histrionicus, the harlequin duck, gaudily dressed and often sounding disproportionately alarmed.) It flings its branches about in showstopping gestures like Polly Pureheart fleeing the nefarious villain; the only organized thing about its shape is that most of those branches head off in roughly the same direction. This generally has something to do with the prevailing winds at its site, but I wouldn’t count on that for a compass either.  

It’s hard to get past the ubiquity of this tree—or shrub, by some reckonings—to convince myself of its interesting qualities. It’s so tough and easy to find that it’s become a “gas-station plant,” one of those landscape stalwarts you see almost everywhere because they can survive almost everywhere. So it’s a bit of a shock when I see it praised, especially as “unique,” in tree and garden publications and websites. 

Taken on its own, the cultivar does have certain charms. Those drama-queen branches can be shaped easily enough to more subtle, or subtly dramatic, bonsai-like styles. In fact, Hollywood junipers have been made into good bonsai by accomplished artists and are also good material for beginning bonsai students. Their commonness makes them inexpensive and easily available, and also means that someone looking for a change from the mass garden look might have one to give away for the work of digging it up. Then all you have to do is spend a few years reducing it, and you have a head start on a nice thick aged-looking trunk. 

Part of the Hollywood juniper’s appeal for bonsai and in a garden lies in the trunks’ and major limbs’ shapes. In a tree more than a few years old, these have a rippled, sinuous, muscular quality like a dawn redwood’s. It’s all very Charles Atlas except when it isn’t: there’s a Hollywood juniper near McCone Hall on the UC Berkeley campus that gets called “Squidward” by, well, I’m not sure who owns up to watching that much Spongebob Squarepants but that’s where the eponymous character shows up. I think it looks more like some larval Ent, myself.  

Another unheralded virtue of our gas-station tree lies in the fact that the cultivar is (by most accounts) a clone of a female plant. That means it doesn’t pollinate. That means it isn’t allergenic—unless you get up close and personal, pruning it or otherwise making skin contact. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s as itchy as any other juniper then; arborists talk about the 24-hour rash we get, generally on hands and forearms, from pruning junipers as just a fact of life.  

That also means they bear berries, and I can witness about that too: birds love them. Watch, especially in winter, for flocks of robins or cedar waxwings or both in your juniper. The robins whinny and holler and fly in and out in their barroom-brawl fashion; the waxwings are more genteel, if no less active, sometimes passing berries around to each other like dessert at a potluck. If you have to prune and your tree has berries, wait till spring, when the mobs have dispersed to breed. 

Pruning is one grudge arborists and landscapers have against Hollywood juniper, despite its reliability. If you have to make serious cuts in the thing, you need a chainsaw. The wood’s tough and dense and thick beyond all reason in such a relatively fast grower. If you have one that’s out of bounds and you don’t use a chainsaw yourself at least weekly, call in a pro. The results can be amazing, and you’ll spare some limbs, including your own.