Living in the Northeast, one of the herbs I look forward to foraging in the winter is the berries from the juniper tree. At this time of year when there isn’t much to find, these little “berries” are a treat. They are at their peak of ripeness and are the most flavorful. You may be wondering what the heck I would use juniper berries for?
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One of the most common ways to use these little cones is to flavor meats like wild game or to use them as a wild yeast fermentation agent for making sauerkraut, sourdough bread, or other delicious fermented foods.
Ways to Use the Berries of the Juniper Tree
I’m always looking to experiment with new foods and learn new recipes made with foraged ingredients. I recently learned about smreka, a fermented beverage originating from the Balkans. It’s super easy to make, and it’s great for your gut health! You can learn how here: Using Juniper Berries to Make Smreka: A Delicious Fermented Beverage.
These little “berries” have commonly been used as a spice in many cuisines around the world for centuries, and have found their way into European, Asian, and Middle Eastern recipes, as well as American food. The flavor is best described as mildly resinous with a tang of citrus and pine. The aroma is similar to gin! Here are a few easy recipes to help you get started using juniper berries to flavor your next meal: 4 Easy Juniper Berry Recipes to Try Today.
Juniper berries also offer lots of health benefits. They are very high in antioxidants and vitamins A and C which help fight free radicals in your body. Vitamins A and C also help strengthen your immune system to prevent colds and boost your body’s ability to fight off any infections. A great way to get the benefits of this herb is to take it as a tea. Learn more about it here: Surprising Health Benefits of Juniper Berry Tea.
The best news is that they’re super easy to find since they grow just about everywhere in the US.
WHERE TO FIND JUNIPER BERRIES
You might be surprised to learn that the fruit of these trees are not berries at all, but are actually female seed cones produced by the various species of junipers.
Junipers, and thus their cones, can be found in most parts of North America. They grow well in most soils, except wet soil, which they tend to dislike. Because they can tolerate extremely dry conditions, you may even find them in cities and other unexpected places.
To find juniper trees in the wild, head to areas that have dry soil and little vegetation. They like hot environments, so they’re most likely to be found in arid regions. If you find a juniper tree, look on its branches for the tiny, blue-colored cones.
The juniper berry is actually most closely related to the cypress tree (or Cupressaceae family) than it is to pine trees. It is also closely related to cedar trees and yews.
IDENTIFYING the JUNIPER Tree
Juniper tree varieties come in a variety of shades – from several shades of green to silvery to shades of blue, bronze, and gold.
As a coniferous evergreen, their leaves start out rough, prickly, and needle-like, but soften as they mature into flattened, scale-like foliage. Depending on the species you choose, junipers can vary in size considerably, from low growing to over 100 feet tall!
I like to look at the cones to perfect my juniper tree identification. The female plants produce the mature bluish/purple berries, that we are looking for.
I also like to take a field taste test. If the berries are piney, a bit resinous, and slightly sweet, then I harvest. If they taste bitter, I spit them out and do not ingest. There are certain varieties of juniper berries that contain high amounts of a resin called Thujone that is toxic to humans if eaten in large amounts. Don’t worry though, they are only mildly toxic, and you would need to eat a lot of them to do any harm.
It’s always a good idea to take along a field guide to help you make a positive identification. Here is a list of my favorites: 28+ Best Field Guides & Plant Identification Books
Warning! Do not taste other wild berries without absolute certainty of their proper identification.
I hope that this article has inspired you to give Juniper Berries a try. They are one of my favorite wild finds, and I guarantee you’ll find the flavor worth the work of foraging for them.