JUNIPER (Juniperus communis – Cupressaceae)

There are about 60 species of juniper plant, but the one which yields berries for culinary and medicinal use is J. communis. This is an evergreen prickly shrub or tree, depending on location and habitat; it sprawls or is prostrate in exposed situations, and as a tree it can reach 2 – 4 m (6 – 12 ft) high. It is widespread over all the northern hemisphere, growing freely in chalk and limestone, in Swedish, Korean and Canadian forests, and Hungarian and Scottish mountains. In Britain, since the decline of rabbits due to myxomatosis, other hardier shrubs have tended to take over from the juniper plant, and it is now rarer than it once was. The trees are unisexual, the flower ‘cones’ of the female trees developing into green berries which turn blue-black during the second or third year.

Often there are green and black berries on the tree at the same time which might be one explanation of the name – from the Latin juniores, referring to the constant new berries. There is disagreement among experts, though, some claiming the name developed from the Celtic gen, meaning small bush, and prus, meaning bitter hot. This latter is more likely to be the basis of the European names – genievre in France, genever in Dutch – from which developed the word gin, the spirit flavoured by juniper berries.

Juniper berries were known to the Ancients. They were found in prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings, and mentioned in Egyptian papyri. They were burned in ancient Greece to combat epidemics – as was the wood rather more recently, in French hospitals during the smallpox epidemic of 1870. The Romans also used it as a strong antiseptic; and in cooking, they flavoured with juniper berries instead of the rare and expensive pepper. Pliny and Galen favoured juniper berries, especially for liver complaints, and recommended it instead of pepper for heavy eaters. Cato the Elder considered the berries to be diuretic – one of their principal proven properties – and formulated a diuretic wine recipe: a large quantity of berries crushed and heated in some old red wine, bottled then stored for ten days. A glass first thing in the morning was said to work wonders!

In the Middle Ages, juniper was considered a panacea for headaches and kidney and bladder problems. St Hildegarde prescribed it for pulmonary infections if crushed in a hot bath, and for high temperatures, advice echoed later by the School of Salerno. In Britain, juniper berries were considered more magical than medicinal: sprays of berries hung on doors kept witches away on May Eve; smoke from a juniper wood fire kept demons away, and an infusion of the berries was thought to restore lost youth.

The German Renaissance botanist, Fuchs, considered juniper a universal remedy, recommending it for virtually any complaint, later echoed by the French writers Rene Bretonnayau and Guillaume Burne!. Dr Lemery gave an interesting recipe for a plague preventative in his medical dictionary: he advised the corifiscurs of France to make juniper dragees – crushed berries instead of almonds in a sugar coating – for people to take several times a day to avoid infection. These Dragees St Roch became very popular.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, doctors and herbalists advocated the properties of juniper, and later Dr Leclerc composed a formula which contained a large amount of berries. This ‘apotheme diuretique’ also contained horsetail and elderberries. Another juniper remedy called huile d’harlem contained some linseed oil and turpentine, and was sold for liver complaints.


Description: Juniper oil is distilled from the fresh black, ripe berries. The further south the berries grow, the more essential oils they contain, and the better the flavour. Those from Italy are said to be the best.

The oil is transparent, fluid and colourless, sometimes with a tinge of greenish-yellow. The aroma is similar to that of pine, but more peppery, hot and balsamic, with a burning, somewhat bitter taste.

The principal constituents: It is rich in Cl-pinene, borneol, cadinene, camphene, isoborneol, a bitter principle called juniperine, terpenic alcohol and terpineol.
Dangers: Juniper oil is often adulterated with turpentine, so beware when buying.


In illness
The principal properties of the oil are anti-rheumatic, antiseptic, depura¬tive, diuretic, emmenagogic, stomachic, carminative, sudorific and tonic. Used externally, it is a parasiticide.

For rheumatism or aching joints, mix together 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil, 2 drops wheatgerm and 10 drops juniper. Massage on the stiff joint, the back of the neck, solar plexus and spine twice a day until better. Massage in until the oil is completely absorbed.

To alleviate the retention of fluid before a period, put 5 drops juniper oil in a warm bath. Follow this with a massage using the oil above (but increasing the soya to 20 ml (4 tsp), from the feet to the top of the legs, tummy and hips. The bath also helps cystitis.
Juniper is good for some skin conditions. For acne, mix 5 ml (1 tsp) each of soya and grape seed oils with 5 drops juniper, and 1 of wheatgerm. Apply a few times a day when the acne is bad.

For large acne boils with pus, dip a cotton wool bud in pure juniper essence and apply morning and night. This acts as a very strong antiseptic, and will help with the inflammation. It can be repeated two to four times a day when symptoms are at their worst.

For weeping eczema, mix 10 ml (2 tsp) almond oil, 5 drops wheatgerm, 6 drops juniper and apply immediately, repeating every four hours until symptoms are better. Cover with a dressing – a piece of gauze will allow the skin to breathe.
(See also abscesses and boils, arthritis, backache, chest infections, cystitis, headaches, leucorrhoea, lumbago, pediculosis, pneumonia and sciatica.)

In beauty
A couple of drops of juniper in a bowl of warm water makes a good facial sauna for greasy skins.

In cookery
Juniper berries are always associated with game: they can be cooked with game, or their flavour can make milder meats taste somewhat like game. The French for instance are very fond of Provencal game birds which eat the berries: this makes their flesh very succulent and full of flavour. As a result, poultry is stuffed with juniper berries to emulate the ‘naturally flavoured’ birds. Use the berries in marinades for wild boar, pork or venison. They also go well with veal and, crushed with garlic and rock salt, make a wonderful flavouring for fresh cabbage. They are traditional in sauerkraut, and many pates.

The berries were a food source of the American Indians of the Pacific North West. They ground them to make into cakes, ate the inner bark of the tree in times of famine, and made tea from the stems and leaves. The wood and berries can be burned on barbecues, and salmon smoked over.
juniper is said to have a deliciously winey flavour.

The berries are added to many drinks, to wines and liqueurs like Chartreuse. They make a herb tea in Lapland, a conserve and herb beer in Scandinavia, and were once roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. The most famous drink flavoured by juniper is gin. This originated in Holland 400 years ago when a Dutch apothecary experi¬mented first with wine, then with spirits, calling his product genievre, ‘gin’ in English, geneva or genever to the continentals. It was originally produced for purely medical reasons as a diuretic. In England, the cheap gin became a scourge, being called ‘mother’s ruin’, perhaps referring to the belief that juniper berries acted as an abortificant. (Many herbalists still advise that juniper remedies should not be taken during pregnancy.) All gins have juniper flavouring to a greater or lesser degree, the exact proportions being secret, as are those of the other ‘botanicals’ – such as angelica, aniseed, caraway, cardamom, cassia bark, coriander and orange peel.

Other uses
Juniper wood is a good wood to carve, with pink heartwood and white sapwood. It makes a fragrant firewood, and is also used to make fragrant pencils. The berries can be used for brown or khaki dyes.

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