Bundled up on our wintery way, we have begun taking note of the amazing mushrooms that have been popping up, even at this late date in the woods where we wander, and the trees that are so starkly gorgeous now that the leaves are down. But it was my daughter that pointed out the Juniper berries most recently, snuggled down against the evergreen branches.
“They’re edible.” She told me.
I guess I knew that, but had never given it much thought. A terror of accidental poisoning has always made me shy of berries in the woods. Still, there is something compelling about a fruit that is both frightful and useful at the same time. It made me want to do some investigating. And here is what I found out:
First of all, if you are plagued by witches, Juniper is your go to botanical. Simply plant one by the front door and witches may not enter.
If you are Scottish you probably already know that Juniper incense can ward off the evil eye.
Tibetans use it to remove demons.
If you happen to be already free of the evil eye, witches and or demons, Juniper berries may be of interest for their medicinal and culinary properties.
The main food use of juniper berries is as a seasoning and can be used to enhance almost any stew using either domestic or wild meat. Poultry, lamb, veal, rabbit, moose, venison and wild boar have all been treated with lively results, since the pungent black fruit blends easily with other herbs and spices, like basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, bay, allspice, garlic and onion. The leaves can be used to add a smoky flavor to grilled fish. Juniper berries are also used throughout the Northern hemisphere to brighten up and season pâtés and sauces. Goulash and Sauerkraut often feature a juniper taste, as do many home cured meats like, salt pork, beef and ham. Juniper not only flavors, but cuts the gaminess of wild meats. It’s no surprise that it has been widely used by native Tribes in cooking as well as for medicinal purposes. Traditionally gathered in early Fall the berries are dried for winter use, or made into mush and used for cakes, roasted, and ground to use as a coffee like substitute.
The Cree Indians called juniper Ka-Ka-Kau-mini and made a poultice for wounds out of the inner bark. J. horizontalis the low growing variety that is common in much of North America and the Yukon is called sik-si-nou-koo (black round objects) by the Blackfoot. Some Indian tribes believed Juniper was an effective method of birth control. A daily tea of five berries could be brewed and then imbibed to prevent conception. The Blackfoot made a liniment of Juniper root and poplar leaves to relieve backache. Juniper Tea was also used to treat sore throats and colds. The Inupiat used berries and twigs tea for respiratory aliments. Many tribes use Juniper “incense” made from bundles of burning needles to cleanse a house and drive out disease.
Juniper is well known by today’s herbalists as an excellent diuretic, and for cleansing the kidneys and bladder as well as for urinary tract infections. It is also known to be effective for dissolving kidney stones.
Note: The oil of juniper can be irritating to the kidneys. It is not recommended for anyone with weak kidneys. Or without the advice of a physician.
In tea form, it stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and is known to relieve indigestion. In this application it has the added benefit of reducing gas and flatulence.
Juniper oil, has been used as an external treatment for stiff joints, but should never be applied without being diluted and mixed with a carrier as its volatile nature can cause blistering.
Juniper’s detoxifying properties are used in the treatment inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and gout, and according to studies, inhibits the formation of inflammatory prostaglandins.
And of course there is Gin. All gin uses juniper as its main ingredient and has an entire history as a distillery ingredient beginning in the 14th century and gaining momentum ever since.
The main chemical compounds in Juniper are sugars, pinene, limonene, tannins, and antioxidant flavonoids, making its extracts both aromatic and potent.
So next time you are wandering amid the evergreens that fill the winter woods, if you note some small, dark mysterious berries, consider Juniper and its place in human life and culture. As I heard someone say recently, we are not in nature – we are nature.