Juniper Berries

Juniperus spp. – Juniper Berries

Juniper BerriesJuniperus spp.

Juniperus = yoo-ni-pe-rus, from its classical Latin name;

Identification: The various species of juniper grow as shrubs and small trees. They have leaves that are scale-like or awl-shaped and are arranged opposite or whorled on the branches. The pollen and seed cones can be borne together on the same plant or on different plants. The seed cones are berry-like and are greenish the first year and bluish when ripe the second. They contain 1 to 4 seeds.

Distribution & Habitat: These plants grow throughout North America except on the prairies.

Preparation & Uses: The so called juniper “berries” are in fact fleshy cones which take two years to ripen. They are green in the first year and turn purple during the second year. All of the species of juniper have edible berries ( J. deppeana and J. horizontalis are the tastiest). The purple-bluish berries taste the best in the fall of the second year or spring of the third year when they are sweet. They can be used to flavour stew or meat. Some Indians dried them for winter use, forming them into cakes. Their primary food use is as a seasoning. Six juniper berries per pound of meat is excellent with moose, venison or rabbit and poultry. The berries have also been roasted and ground, for use as a coffee substitute.

The berries of juniper give gin its distinctive and well-known flavour. The berries can also be made into a mush, then dried in cakes. Again, the purple berries are the ones to eat. I’ve often eaten them raw and enjoyed them. Some people find them distasteful.

Juniper is well known by herbalists as an excellent diuretic, cleansing out the kidney and bladder. It is especially effective for dissolving stones. The oil of juniper can be irritating to the kidneys if they are weak. Juniper is usually used with a demulcent such as marshmallow root to avoid this. The berries were used by herbalists in the Middle Ages to help them avoid getting contagious diseases. Herbalists who treated people during the Black Death usually kept a few berries in their mouths to avoid infection. It works by forming an antiseptic barrier. A strong tea of the berries was used as a disinfectant for needles and bandages. The berries are known to stimulate the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Juniper berries have also been used to expel intestinal gas.

The Cree called juniper Ka-Ka-Kau-mini and made a poultice for wounds out of the inner bark. J. horizontalis is called sik-si-nou-koo (black round objects) by the Blackfoot. Many Indian tribes believed that if a woman took a daily tea made with five juniper berries, she would not become pregnant.

A liniment was made by the Blackfoot to remedy backaches by infusing juniper root and poplar leaves. They also used an infusion of the root as a general tonic. Dena`ina Athabasca drank juniper berry tea for sore throats, colds and tuberculosis. The Inipiat used a berries-and-twigs tea for respiratory problems. An “incense” of the needles has often been burned to cleanse a house, driving infectious disease out. Juniper oil extract has been used as an external application for stiff joints, but should be diluted with other oils (e.g. olive or almond oil) because it can cause blisters.

The Blackfoot used juniper to floor their sweat lodges and to floor the Sun Dance lodge.

Some proud Indian horse owners would bath their horses in water in which the root had been soaked. This would make the horsehair shine. A decoction of juniper branches is an anti-dandruff rinse.

Blackbeads can be made from the berries of juniper. After collecting a fair quantity of berries, you string them on a small sliver of wood and let them dry. After they have dried, pour grease on the fire and smoke the dried berries in the thick smoke, which turns the berries black. The beads are then polished and strung and can be interspersed with wolf willow beads.