Juniper Berries–Juniperus species.
Other Names: common juniper; low juniper; prickly juniper (J. communis); creeping juniper, creeping savin (J. horizontalis); California juniper (J. californica); western juniper (. occidentalis); Rocky Mountain juniper (J. scopulorum).
Cypress Family: (Cupressaceae).
Physical Description: Juniper: Juniperus communis (illustrated); a: matlike shrub to 30–feet tree. Northern specimens often prostrate. b: leaves of common juniper are long, sharp–pointed and needlelike, with a characteristic channel of white. c: male and female flowers form yellow cones. Female flowers develop into the juniper berries used for spices and teas. d: female fruit is smaller than a pea, pale green when immature. The juniper takes 2 to 3 years for mature fruits, which are blue–black with whitish bloom and have a distinctive gin–like flavor. e: stem bark is scaly; varies in color from gray to reddish brown.
Habitat and Range: Dry, sunny slopes and sandy areas are common habitats for juniper. Common juniper (J. communis) is indeed the most common Juniperus species in the Pacific Northwest. It ranges from northern Alaska and the Yukon to California. Creeping juniper (J. horizontalis), characterized by the smooth scalelike leaves that press closely to the stem, grows from south-central Alaska and the central Yukon to British Columbia. Juniper is a creeping shrub to small tree; growth form varies with climate and conditions.
Juniper: Tangy Spice and Potent Medicine
If cattails are the “supermarket of the swamp,” then juniper must be the “shopping mall of the mountains.” This shrubby evergreen, which is one of the most widely distributed woody plants in the world, offers countless products for the enterprising forager. With the berries and twigs you can brew tea, season game, smoke fish, repel moths, sooth rheumatic pains, and kill infectious germs.
Year-round: Since juniper fruits take two to three years to mature, the plant can be harvested at any time. Only blue fruits should be collected for food and medicines. Fruits that are not fully mature are harvested for brewing alcoholic drinks as they are higher in essential oils.
Juniper’s primary food use is a seasoning; the resinous fruits and spicy flavor to sauerkraut and potato salads. Juniper Marinade is excellent for moose, venison, rabbit, beaver, and poultry; vegetarians might like to try it with tempeh or tofu.
A half-dozen juniper berries per half-pound meat is the recommended guideline for flavoring meat. Try placing roasts on a bed of juniper branches for the last ten minutes of cooking for a flavorful accent; serve on the juniper bed for a decorative touch. When smoking fish and meats, add a few juniper branches to your alder chips.
In Scandinavia, deseeded juniper berries are made into jam and spread on bread. In Britain and France, the berries are a pepper substitute and a base for making beer. In the United States, and elsewhere, juniper berries are used to give gin its characteristic flavor; the immature female fruits, by the way, are highest in the desired oils and best for flavoring spirits.
A pleasant nonalcoholic beverage is made by steeping berryless juniper boughs for five to ten minutes. The berries themselves can also be used, but the fruits are especially potent and should not be taken on a regular basis. When serving juniper tea as a non–medicinal beverage, prepare in an uncovered teapot to allow the potent volatile oils to escape.
Juniper is frequently used by herbalists for urinary tract and bladder infections and inflammations. Michael Moore, in Medical Plants of the Mountain West, especially recommends it for cystitis and urethritis. He suggests “…a teaspoon of crushed berries or a rounded teaspoon of the leaves, steeped in a covered cup of water for fifteen minutes and drunk, one to three cups a day.” To increase effectiveness of the brew, juniper is often blended with kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and cleavers (Galiukm aparine).
Since juniper’s essential oils can be irritating to the kidneys, the herb is commonly buffered with herbs soothing and softening to body tissues (demulcents and emollients), such as comfrey, mallow, mullein, and slippery elm. Demulcent Alaskan herbs include Iceland moss, common plantain, and coltsfoot. Juniper blends are used for a variety of complaints, ranging from fluid retention and gas to poor appetite and stomach cramps.
Juniper oil extracts (obtained through distillation) are used as an external application for bone-joint difficulties, but herbalist John Lust warns “…the pure oil is irritating and in large quantities, can cause inflammation and blisters.” A milder home product can be made by soaking juniper berries in olive oil; use as a massage oil for strained muscles or aching joints. To obtain juniper liniment, soak the fruits in everclear or witch hazel for two weeks; then strain the fluids and use this to rub down a horse’s legs after a strenuous workout, or a human’s back after a hard day.
Nibbling a few juniper berries or sipping juniper berry tea one hour before meals is often recommended to those troubled by indigestion. This is said to stimulate the secretion of hydrochloric acid and pepsin, thus facilitating digestion.
Dena’ina Athabascans drink juniper berry tea for sore throat, colds, tuberculosis, and difficulty in urination. Inupiat boil juniper berries and twigs to make a tea for respiratory problems. In the Kotzebue area, adds Anore Jones, “some people toast the leaves on the back of the stove in a room where there is a sick person so the rest of the family won’t get sick.” To prevent or cure a cold, slowly dissolve one juniper berry in your mouth daily is also recommended.
Juniper should not be taken internally by pregnant women or by individuals with kidney problems. Juniper contains a potent volatile essential oil, oil of sabinal. In excess, juniper can cause severe renal damage and convulsions. Before taking for a medical condition, it is best to consult with a physician.
Used in moderation, as all seasonings should be used, the herb should provide no problems for those in normal health.
A decoction of juniper branches is an anti–dandruff hair rinse. The same fluid can be added to bath water to ease away aches and pains.
Juniper was an ingredient in sixteenth century herbal blends, along with wormwood, elder and roses) to fumigate rooms. This evergreen does give off a disinfectant gas when it is burned that effectively destroys infectious fungi. During epidemics, it was often burned in hospital rooms. The standard method involves igniting a branch, blowing out the fire, and waving the smoldering juniper in the room. This is called smudging. If you have a sauna, you can place twigs and berries on the rocks and sprinkle them with water, the juniper steam serves the same purpose. It certainly adds a wonderful fragrance to the air. For many native people throughout history, juniper has been an important plant. Berries were ground and cooked as mush and hotcakes. Plants were carried in pouches as protection against evil influences. When a person died, the bedding and belongings of the deceased were washed in a juniper decoction.
Juniper wood can be shredded and placed in chests and drawers to repel moths. In areas where juniper grows tree–sized, the wood is used in the manufacture of pencils and fence posts.
When camping, you can use juniper bark as tinder, juniper bough as a camping mat, and ashes of burnt juniper twigs as a powder for brushing your teeth. If you’re a smoker out of tobacco, try a pipe full of dry juniper berries for a flavorful smoke.
On the homestead, juniper is an attractive ornamental that favors dry sunny soil. If you are suffering the cabin fever blues from an overdose of winter white, you can brighten your spirits and surroundings with a vaseful of the cheery green branches. If you’re still despondent, burn some branches; the fragrant smoke is believed to dispel melancholy as well as germs.