In between travelling and spending time with family over the Thanksgiving weekend, I managed to slip away for a walk in search of junipers and their berries (Juniperus communis).
I found them growing in abundance. Junipers are exceedingly hardy, tolerating and even thriving in the harshest conditions from drought, arid deserts to subarctic tundra. They need very little soil and prefer a high mineral environment. Look for them in open, sunny areas with thin, rocky soil, exposed caprock, the sides of mountains. They grow very slowly, are long-lived and can appear in all forms from a ground-hugging shrub to a 30ft tree. They are often planted as ornamentals in gardens and city landscapes.
Junipers belong to the Cupressaceae family which includes cypresses and redwoods. It is the only conifer family that occurs all over the world on all continents, except Antarctica and the common juniper is the only tree species to occur naturally in Asia, Europe and North America.
Ancient civilisations used the aromatic, rot resistant wood in their temples and palaces, coffins and clothes chests.
Many cultures hold juniper as sacred and there are numerous folklore tales surrounding the tree. It is thought that the juniper stands as a watch to other dimensions acting as an intermediary between the human and spirit world.
These juvenile leaves are light green above,
and silvery, blueish below. (Please excuse my elderberry stained thumbnail!)
The female berries are actually tiny cones, whose scales have fused together. They take 18 months to 3 years to ripen and they don't all ripen at the same time so you will find both green, unripe and blue-purple to black ripe berries on the same bush.
Juniper has long been used as a culinary herb and in herbal medicine. Many people know that it is juniper that gives gin its unique flavour. The berries, leaves and twigs are often used to flavour meats, especially game meat. Juniper berries are a classic addition to sauerkraut.
In herbal medicine the berries are used as a diuretic and antiseptic for urinary and bladder infections, and kidney complaints. (The resins and volatile oils can be somewhat hard on the kidneys, so use with caution where there is kidney disease or weakness).
Juniper berries remove uric acid from the system which is helpful for people suffering from gout. (And no, this isn't an affliction that only old, rich men got back in the oldy-days. A friend my age, has excruciating attacks of gout in his toes. He says its the most painful thing he's ever experienced. And my Oma has occasional bouts of it.)
Juniper berries are somewhat bitter and chewing a few before a meal will stimulate the flow of bile and digestive juices to help properly break down food. They will relieve gas, bloating and belly discomfort. The berries are warming, so are particularly good for people who tend to be cold, with sluggish digestion. Think Kapha types if you know your Ayurveda.
A decocted tea or steam inhalation will help with congested lungs and coughs.
The external use of juniper oil will soothe sore muscles and arthritic pain.
Because the berries ripen at different times, they can be harvested throughout the year, although the flavour will change depending on the season. The berries that I harvested at the beginning of October were deliciously sweet and hardly bitter at all. The berries can be eaten fresh, tinctured and dried, after which they will turn a much deeper purple, almost black colour.
Take a look around the next time you're outside. Chances are, there's a juniper growing nearby that you can get to know!