This is the time of year when juniper berries are thick on the stem. These are the berries that gave gin its name (ginèvre is French for juniper) – and its peculiar flavor. So next time you hoist a classic gin cocktail, think of its origins, and salute the juniper.
Junipers can be diminuitive bushes no higher than your ankle or shin, like our native Juniperus communis montana which (as the name implies) can be found in the mountains. Las Pilitas points out that this is a very adaptable plant: rock outcroppings are its native habitat, but it also thrives given garden soil, water, and plenty of sun.
As you can see, rock outcroppings are the natural habitat of larger junipers, too. Our native Juniperus californica sets its roots right in rock, and is probably partly responsible for helping to break up some of this high Sierra granite (this tree was growing at about 6,000 feet). (For more about how trees help create soil, check this post.)
California junipers can be shrubs or trees, depending on where they grow. Severe mountain winds and climates make them into Moore-like sculptures.
The “fur” on their bark isn’t particularly soft; it’s more like bark having a fibrous bad-hair day. But it does make intriguing patterns and textures. For the California Indians the fiber was more than an aesthetic experience: it was valuable for diapers, clothing, and mattresses.
Probably because of the pungent essential oils in its wood, both kinds of native juniper have been prized for fenceposts. “A juniper post will outlast two post holes.”
The oils in juniper were valuable to California Indians in different ways. They were used as smudges and teas for coughs, colds, flus and fever, and they were probably effective, because juniper oil is antiseptic, cleans the digestives system, and promotes detoxification generally. High blood pressure, constipation, and hiccups were also treated with juniper (juniper oil increases circulation).
French hospitals, which use much more aromatherapy than ours, used a rosemary/juniper smudge as a disinfectant until fairly recently. (They would have used the European junipers near them, but different kinds of juniper have similar uses.)
In Native American saunas, berries were thrown on hot rocks, probably giving the same disinfectant effects, as well as feelings of health, love, and peace, which are associated with juniper. I have yet to try this, but it sounds as if it might be as intoxicating as gin, without the bad aftereffects. (I’ve always found that gin is a sneaky, somewhat crazy high, coming up behind me softly with a very big mallet.)
The berries were also used for cold medicine and stopgap food when supplies ran short in winter. If you’ve ever tasted juniper berries, you’ll know they’re very pungent and strong-tasting, a lot like biting into a succulent pine needle. They taste very medicinal, but they’d be a tough thing to make into a meal. Their medicinal qualities might have helped stave off illness in times of weakness, though.
I was surprised to find that juniper berries can be found in our own food. Besides flavoring your gin, juniper berries may be in your prepared meats, fish, and sauerkraut (this really makes me want to read my sauerkraut labels more often).
But amazing and versatile and beautiful as their berries are, there’s something about junipers I like even better. Like redwoods, junipers can keep going even when they’re mostly dead; trees that do this are often associated with death and resurrection in myths and stories. It’s a beautiful thing to see the clean, almost bonelike dead wood striped with living, furry bark. A reminder to us all that it takes only a little spark of life to keep on.
Sources: Las Pilitas– great California native site with lots of information on plant habitats, uses, propagation, and more
.Mojave Desert http://mojavedesert.net/plants/shrubs/juniper.html – Desert-oriented native plant site
arboretum.ucsc.edu/pdfs/ethnobotany_webversion.pdf – an excellent .pdf on California native plant uses, from the University of Southern California arboretum
Essential Oils Desk Reference, Third Edition, Essential Science Publishing