Juniper: An Aromatic Evergreen
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As a child growing up in urban Milwaukee, family walks on Sunday afternoons were routine. I remember going by rows of neatly trimmed juniper bushes, and my father stopping us all as he picked a few leaves, crushed them between his fingers, put them to his nose, and inhaled. We were made to follow suit. The smell was strong but pleasant— resinous, slightly citrusy, and stimulating. To this day, I can’t resist picking small amounts of juniper and inhaling the invigorating scent.
Obviously I didn’t know this as a child, but those distinctive smells are essential oils, and they often signal important medicinal qualities, such as fighting infections in wounds and treating coughs, colds, or fevers. In fact, I didn’t even know that the plant was called juniper, much less realize that it was edible and medicinal. But that uplifting smell always stuck with me; and once you smell it, I’m sure it will for you, too!
When someone refers to juniper, it may be any number of species within the genus Juniperus. In Minnesota, the three native species are common juniper (Juniperus communis), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), and creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis). Creeping juniper is a species of special concern in the state, so it should not be picked if found in the wild. Cultivated varieties found in parks, yards, etc. are fine to harvest (assuming you have permission!) Creeping juniper grows across the northern US and all of Canada. Eastern red cedar (I’ll just call it “red cedar” from here on out) is common in Minnesota, and can often be found planted in parks and landscapes. It ranges across the eastern US and Canada. Common juniper has the broadest range of the three, extending across most of the US and Canada, except a few southern states.
Common juniper is a shrub that grows up to 5 feet tall and 20 feet across, while red cedar is a small to midsize tree with a conical crown. Common juniper has sharp-pointed leaves (needles) in whorls of three, and those of red cedar are opposite in twos and scalelike. Both have berrylike seed cones that start light green in color and ripen to a deep blackish blue. They take approximately two years to ripen. Creeping juniper leaves and berries look nearly exactly like those of red cedar. But as its name implies, it grows low to the ground, rarely exceeding heights of 10 inches. Branches are no greater than 3/4 inch in diameter.
All three species are edible and have similar medicinal properties.
Juniper is probably best known as the flavoring agent in gin. But it has a culinary repertoire that far exceeds its use in alcohol! The berry has a long tradition of flavoring meats, sausage, and game in northern European countries. In the Americas, native tribes of the southwest traditionally cook corn with juniper ash, which adds a deeper flavor, softens the corn kernels for grinding, and increases the nutritional value of the corn. Meanwhile, modern-day chefs are experimenting with juniper ash as a salt substitute. Sean Sherman, for example, writes about using juniper for culinary ash in his book The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen. The berries also have a long history of flavoring tea, or being used for tea own their own. This is the most common way that the plant is taken medicinally.
Juniper berries are rich in essential oils, which give them their characteristic smell. Aromatic qualities such as this (and in other plants such as mint, ginger, and rosemary) often point to medicinal qualities, and juniper is no exception! A tea of the berries can be used to improve urinary health, tone digestion, fight infections, and ease cramping.
To make a tea, lightly crush one teaspoon of dried juniper berries. Place in a glass jar and pour one cup of boiling water over it. Place a lid on the jar and infuse for 20 minutes. Drink one cup twice daily.
Most texts warn that juniper should only be used medicinally in the short term and in moderate amounts, as it may irritate the kidneys if taken in excess. Furthermore, there are warnings against taking it during pregnancy, as it may act as an abortifacient. This is based off historical use of the plant to terminate pregnancies, as well as the effect of isocupressic acid, which can cause abortions in cattle and is found in juniper species. Those who are pregnant should take it with caution or not at all.
As previously mentioned, juniper berries are often used to flavor meats, sausages, and game. Here is a long list of recipes using juniper, most of which are meat-based.
Vegetarians can try mixing juniper berries into butter (or butter substitute for vegans). Juniper berries are quite potent, so you don’t need a large amount— only about 24 dried berries per 4 tablespoons of butter. Simply crush up the berries in a mortar and pestle, or chop finely with a sharp knife. Mix with the softened butter and add a bit of salt, if desired. It is excellent served with rye bread.
To make juniper ash, dry juniper twigs until brittle; the stem and leaves should snap easily. Burn outside in a flame-proof bowl. When completely burnt, crush gently in a mortar and pestle. (I usually burn the juniper right in the mortar, which makes this transition easier. Just make sure it is cool enough to handle!) Don’t worry about bits of twigs or unburnt leaves, as the next step is to sift the ashes through a fine stainless steel sieve. I use a small one meant for tea, and strain it directly onto the food I’m flavoring. Juniper ash has a smoky, resinous flavor that tastes delicious with cheese, beans, eggs, popcorn, and many other foods!
You can also use juniper ash when cooking corn, which— as mentioned above— improves the nutritional value. Here is a traditional Navajo recipe for blue corn mush.
A Note on Drying
Many of the recipes above call for dried juniper berries or twigs. When drying material, you ideally want a breezy environment with low humidity. Many people mistakenly believe that high heat and sun is the best way to dry plant material, but for aromatic species such as juniper, it is better to dry them in cooler temperatures and out of direct sunlight. This is because the heat and light can damage the aromatic qualities, which negatively impacts the flavor and medicinal properties.
Now that you have an idea of what juniper looks like, I hope that you will notice it in your environment! When you do, go ahead and take a whiff. You’ll probably be as intoxicated by the smell as I am!
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