Juniper, (Juniperus communis) is an evergreen shrub common throughout North America. The “berry” is not a true berry but the female seed cone with unusually fleshy scales, which give it a berry-like appearance. Male and female flowers occur on separate plants but only the female flowers produce berries. Most juniper species grow edible berries, but some are too bitter to eat. Warning, some species, such as J. sabina, are toxic.
The cones from Juniperus communis or common juniper are used as a spice in northern European cuisine to add a sharp, clear flavor to game marinade, wild birds and other meat dishes. Juniper berries are commonly used in sauerkraut and various German, Austrian, Czech and Hungarian dishes.
Commercially, juniper berries flavor gin, a liquor developed in the 17th century in the Netherlands. If you have ever enjoyed a gin and tonic you have sampled the flavor of juniper. To harvest the berries, pick them fully matured in the fall and allow them to dry slowly, this can take six months or longer, then store in a tightly sealed container in a dark cool cabinet or pantry. Or you can order a small quantity from your favorite herb and spice shop. The berries lose their flavor quickly so don’t purchase more than you will use in a short time.
During the Christmas holidays juniper branches are brought into the home for decoration. Their piney, aromatic leaves add a fresh cedar scent and are used to make garlands and wreaths. Some juniper trees are mistakenly given the common name “cedar,” including J. virginiana, the red cedar that is used in cedar drawers and chests. An essential oil extracted from juniper berries is used in aromatherapy and perfumes.
Juniper berries have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs including the tomb of Tutankhamen. The berries probably came from Greece and were used as a medicine long before they were mentioned as a food. The Romans used juniper berries as a cheap domestically-produced substitute for the expensive black pepper and long pepper imported from India.
Common juniper grows wild, and many of the cultivars are popular in the Southern landscape. Junipers vary in size and shape from trees 20 to 40 feet tall, to columnar or low spreading shrubs with long trailing branches. They are evergreen with needle-like or scale-like leaves.
While visiting my former hometown, Webster Groves, Missouri recently, I was involved with an herbal festival. One of the items for sale was a “Juniper Berry Foot Bath”. Each muslin packet contained Epson salts, juniper berries and baking soda with instructions to fill a basin with several inches of warm water, add the contents and soak your feet for several minutes. Seems like a perfect way to finish a day of holiday shopping.
A quick search through my German cookbooks and Williamsburg recipes found juniper berries listed as ingredients in Sauerbraten, Roasted Pork, Roast Venison with Red Wine Sauce, Pheasant with Stuffing, Steamed Spiced Sauerkraut, Carrot and Potato Bake, as well as many stews and slow roasting dishes. So if there is a hunter in the family or you enjoy hearty meals give juniper berries a try.