In Praise of the Lowly Common Juniper

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

I am always amazed that wildlife makes it through winter in our zone, as food doesn’t appear to be all that plentiful when everything is covered in snow and ice. However difficult it seems, native wildlife have a variety of adaptations to surviving winter; knowing where to find food is one of them.

Juniperus communis or common juniper is one of the most widely distributed trees in the world. They are members of the Cupressaceae family. They can tolerate a wide range of conditions; they are tough, they can survive with a lot of wind, and thereby can provide protection for animals in harsh weather. Junipers have a strong scent, bitter taste, and sharp needles. Deer tend to ignore plants with these attributes.

The berries, however, are a different story. They begin life a grey-green color, and ripen in 18 months to a deep purple-black hue with a blue waxy coating. While they are called juniper berries, the “berry” is actually a cone, the female seed cone. Junipers are almost always dioecious which means that in order for the female plants to set fruit, a male plant must be in the vicinity.

Juniper berries are one of the top late winter foods for many birds and mammals which covet the deep blue orbs. They aren’t particularly high energy or calorie-dense; they are soft and fleshy, and have a strong, woody, spicy, pepper-like flavor with a gritty texture. Perhaps this is why they are ignored early on, but in the depths of winter when all the other really desirable food is gone, they become more popular with wildlife. Juniper berries could be the difference between survival and starvation for the species who rely upon them.

Junipers have a long history with humans as well as wildlife. These trees are responsible for one of the only spices derived from a conifer. The ripe, blue berries were and are currently used throughout the world to flavor meats (particularly wild game) – and sauerkraut. The first record of juniper berries was in Ancient Egypt at around 1500 BC.

During the Black Death in the 14th century, plague doctors wore masks with long beaks full of juniper berries and other botanicals to mask the unpleasant smells they’d encounter tending the sick. They believed that juniper stopped the spread of the disease. This was somewhat true – the disease was spread by fleas and juniper is an effective and natural flea repellent.

Most famously, the unripe, green berries are used to flavor gin. Gin is originally from the Netherlands — in the 16th century, a schnaps was distilled with juniper berries to become so called “Genever” (in dutch: juniper berry) which was consumed for medical purposes. “Genever” developed to become the today’s “Gin”.

Juniper berries have since been used to flush out toxins, heal infections and even aid in digestion. Caution: If you intend to forage your local woodlot for berries, be wary because while most of them are harmless, there are some species that have mildly toxic berries. Do not randomly harvest juniper berries unless you are sure of the species.

Foraging aside, if you are looking for native plants for your garden, a few juniper bushes are a great choice. They’re hardy, provide cover and food for a variety of wildlife, and will definitely help our wild neighbors survive particularly difficult winters.

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