Juniper: Not Just for Gin

Throughout the US, Juniper is used as ground cover. Experts differ but existing records show between 52 and 67 different species. A member of the Cypress family, it is actually a shrub that can grow into a tree up to 25 feet high! The part you’re looking to use is the berries. It can take up to three years for the berries to reach maturity on some species, although the average maturity rate is 18 months. The berries are blue-black when ripe. Although all Juniper species have some medicinal qualities, the most widely-used is Juniperus communis.

Probably the best-known use for Juniper berries is as an ingredient in gin (“gin” is a derivative of the Dutch word “geniver”, or “juniper”). Gin was first distilled in Holland in the 17th century and was originally produced as medicine. (As an aside, what we know today as tonic water was originally known as quinine water and made from the bark of the Cinchona tree  – it’s synthesized today. So, if you’re a gin & tonic drinker, I guess you could use the excuse you’re taking your medicine?) Herbally, we generally drink an infusion, although with proper use the essential oil is a basis for several remedies.

An infusion of Juniper is made by crushing one tablespoon of berries in two cups hot water. Steep about ten minutes and strain. This infusion has long been used in Germany to treat heartburn, indigestion, urinary tract infections, and bronchitis. Juniper has also been credited with inhibiting several viruses, including the flu and herpes. If you are pregnant, nursing, or have kidney problems, don’t use Juniper at all, and it’s not recommended for children. Be aware that Juniper is a diuretic so if you’re taking it for a particular problem, be sure to drink plenty of water and eat a few bananas to replace the potassium you’re losing. Juniper may also potentiate (increase the efficacy of) hypoglycemic and diuretic therapies.

You can use Juniper essential oil topically (dilute well in a base oil such as grapeseed or almond) as an inhalant for colds & coughs – rub on the chest just like you would Vicks VapoRub. The diluted oil can also be used for certain skin conditions such as psoriasis. (Juniper oil can be toxic in small doses so don’t ingest it.)

If you’re really into sharp flavors in your cooking, Juniper berries can be used in poultry dishes and to flavor wild game. They’re an ingredient in many Scandinavian and German dishes, including sauerkraut (which, by the way, is also good for colds).

Juniper berries, when pierced and strung, provide a strong protection for valuables. Wrap your string of berries around your jewelry box or important papers. It’s also said that wearing that same string as a necklace will keep illness at bay as it banishes dark energies and attracts healthy energy. Burning the berries as “incense” will help increase psychic powers and break hexes & curses.

So, if you or your neighbors have Juniper helping to hold a hillside down, don’t let the birds get the berries! Put netting over them as soon as you see the berries emerge – the birds will eat even the green ones. If you pick them, be sure you’re at least 50-100 feet away from the road (so you don’t get the car exhaust fumes the plants will absorb) and if the plants are on your neighbor’s property, be sure to get their permission to pick. Lay them out on a screen to dry: they will take up to a month to dry thoroughly.

In the meantime, order me a gin & tonic with a wedge of lime, please.  I’ll be right there.