In Chippewa, ga’gawan’dagisid meaning deceptive, common junipers “berries” aren’t as sweet as they appear. (I’m not actually sure that is why deceptive is the descriptive name.) But common juniper is still an edible and medicinal plant, especially popular in Northern Europe.
In Haliburton, Ontario you’ll find var. depressa Pursh. It’s been fairly common around here, especially dotting open fields. With our forest taking back the land that was cleared it must be on some decline. Worldwide there are a small number of junipers that are poisonous. But communis is the species used for flavoring, herbal medicine, etc.
Edible Uses of Common Juniper
The western species of juniper, like California juniper, are less resinous and thus more palatable. And if you want to get vitamin c from conifer needles, spruce tip season is coming soon (early spring!) Juniper berries (though not true berries) can be used to spice up your cooking. They are best picked around apple picking season, specifically the second year berries which are dark blue. The ripe berries here are pitchy, but worth a try. They can be dried slowly in the shade and kept in a glass jar, no need for refrigeration. Dried berries can be crushed and sprinkled as pepper or a substitute for sage, especially for meat dishes. A tsp to tbsp is plenty. Give the raw berry a chew first too see if you’d like it on your chicken, or hidden in your chili.
The berries are most famous for flavoring gin, “Geneva” or “Hollands” being the original gin. Young green berries are used in this case. Rob or Roob of Juniper, the berry extract, is still in demand as a gin ingredient.
The inner bark, you might have guessed if familiar with other conifers, is another resinous starvation food.
The most exciting culinary use of juniper in my opinion is actually from its allied fungus. The white film that may appear on juniper berries is a wild yeast. You can use it in beer crafting and breadmaking. It’s a wild way to make a sourdough starter! Speaking of fermented foods, some sauerkraut recipes call for the berries.
Medicinal Uses of Common Juniper
Common juniper is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Analgesic, Anti-Inflammatory, Antiseptic, Carminative, Counterirritant, Diaphoretic, Diuretic, Emmenagogue, and Stimulant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes dried ripe fruit as a bitter digestive aid. Steep the “berries” until the water changes color. 1 Tsp crushed berries seeped in 1/2 cup of water, or a few berries chewed would suffice. As a spice they may counteract flatulence, which is possibly why this has ended up in a few chili recipes! But don’t use a medicinal dose of juniper if you’re pregnant or have kidney problems. Also, it looks like juniper hasn’t been studied much, perhaps due to its irritating qualities and that you can’t use it long-term. If you look it up on WebMD they stick “might” in front of every possible benefit.
The berries or the weaker new twigs are used as an antiseptic for UTI/bladder and kidney infections, however it’s simultaneously not recommended for people with kidney problems. In the way that you’d want to consult an expert to use say, hawthorn for cardiovascular health, ditto here. See a professional.
The roots are called rheumatism roots, being used to decrease swelling from arthritis, including gout. Juniper oil derived from the berries is used too. But in large quantities these salves/oils/etc. can cause skin irritation and blistering. (See Red-Osier, oil of turpentine, etc. for alternatives.)
The author of Green Pharmacy likes to drink it when he feels a cold coming on, due to possible antiviral components. Similarly, the berries can be steamed for relief of congestion. The only other use in his short list was for amenorrhea (to bring on menses). Its antiviral and antibiotic uses go way back. During the black plague doctors held a few berries in their mouth in hopes this would protect them. Juniper has been used to sterilize medical equipment, and fumigate germy rooms. In many cultures it is used for protection and purification in regard to disease and death. While many nurses especially have made lifesaving discoveries to disinfect their workspaces, the practice goes back a long way.
Alternative Uses of Juniper Shrub
The dried berries can be added to potpourri. Juniper fragrance is also used in cosmetics. “Juniper tar” has been popular. I found one soap with the tar as an ingredient on Amazon, but it also included sulphur. Pine tar is more in vogue now and can be easily found in soaps that won’t smell like demon.
Dried berries can also be used to make jewelry. I recently saw jewelry made from dried potato. I imagine quite a few fruits and veggies can be tinkered with.
Juniper wood, especially burl wood, is used to make knife handles. There are a handful of other woodworking uses especially hailing from Northern Europe, who also use it more in their ales too. If your ancestors are from N. Europe perhaps this is a plant to get to know better…
Growing Creeping Juniper
Our variety is a 4-6 feet high and is a prickly needled expanding shrub. It likes a little lime. They’re considered ornamental by some. They are valued for food and shelter by many of our wild ones.
I transplanted mine from an old field that is fast becoming woodland. I found a sparse young juniper and it was easy to dig up and replant. So easy, they are a good starter bonsai too.
Don’t use if you are pregnant or have kidney disease.
Juniper oil can cause skin irritation and blistering.
Avoid large, frequent doses. Long term use can damage kidneys.
There are junipers that are poisonous.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants