What are juniper berries?
There are many varieties of juniper; you might be surprised to learn that the fruit of these trees are not berries at all, but are actually female seed cone produced by the various species of junipers. These cones are unusually fleshy with merged scales, which gives them a berry-like appearance. The berries can be harvested fresh and then dried or frozen and stored for future use.
The Berries grow on all species of juniper, though not all of them are edible. The Tam Juniper shrub (Juniperus sabina) for example, is native to Southern Europe and is popular for landscaping in the US. Its berries are not edible, because they’re toxic to humans.
In addition to the common juniper, other edible varieties include:
- Juniperus vinginiana
- Juniperus californica
- Juniperus chinensis
- Juniperus deppeana
- Juniperus drupacea
- Juniperus excelsa
- Juniperus oxycedrus
- Juniperus phoenicea
Where I live, the most common variety of juniper and the one I forage the most is Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus vinginiana), a species of juniper native to eastern North America from southeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and east of the Great Plains.
Except for pine nuts, these fruit-like cones are the only common food that comes from conifer trees.
Where to find Juniper Berries
Junipers, and thus their berries, can be found in most parts of North America. They grow well in most soils with the exception of 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. Junipers 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.
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, juniper 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 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.
Warning! Do not taste other wild berries without absolute certainty of their proper identification.
What are some ways to include Juniper berries in foods and drinks?
Juniper berries are a key ingredient in gin, and you can also use them to flavor meats and sauces, and to ferment foods such as home-brewed beverages like Smreka and sauerkraut. You can also use the wild yeast on juniper berries as a starter for sourdough bread.
Juniper berries are a spice used in many cuisines around the world for centuries. They have found their way into European, Asian, and Middle Eastern recipes, as well as American food. They have a slightly bitter taste, but they are very versatile in the kitchen.
I have used these flavorful berries on wild game such as venison, as well as a flavoring for vegetables and even desserts. The flavor is best described as mildly resinous with a tang of citrus and pine. The aroma is similar to gin!
If you’ve never cooked with this kind of berries before, they should be handled with care, since their flavor is so intense that it can easily overwhelm a dish if too many are used.
Keep in mind that juniper berries freeze well for long-term storage.
Juniper berries have a lot of powerful medicinal uses. Juniper is a powerful diuretic – a herb that increases the flow of urine, helping to cleanse the system of excess fluids and stimulating the kidneys. This causes the body to flush out uric acid and excess crystals that can cause many problems including gout, arthritis and kidney stones.
The berries are rich in volatile oils, in particular terpinen-4-ol, which is reported to increase the rate of kidney filtration, which in turn increases urine flow whilst helping to flush out bacteria from the kidneys and bladder. This makes Juniper exceptionally useful in the treatment of urinary tract infections, with some patients reporting relief after just 24-72 hours of use. The British Pharmacopoeia even lists Juniper as a urinary tract disinfectant.
The berries are currently being tested for their ability to fight liver cancer due to their high content of alpha-pinene compounds. They have also been used to relieve joint pain, toothaches, stomach problems, respiratory problems (including asthma), heart issues (including irregular heartbeat), and problems with the uterus.
In addition to these uses, many people believe that pure juniper berries can improve memory function.
Harvesting Juniper Berries
Juniper berries tend to be easiest to pick in the winter months when they’re ripe and blue-gray in color. As with any foraging, make sure you know what you’re looking for before going out in search of junipers.
The berries are ripe and ready for harvesting when they begin to wrinkle and turn a dark, purplish/almost black color. If you pick them too early, they will not have the right taste and will not be enjoyable. Waiting until they are completely dark blue, or purple makes them ready for harvest. The berries start out green and turn to blue before turning completely purple. When you pick juniper berries, be sure to pick them from areas of the plant that seem to be thriving.
Although winter is the best time for me to harvest, they can be harvested year-round depending on where you live. They start budding in the late summer, and the berries grow until they ripen in the fall. The berries will ripen throughout the season and will remain on the bush through winter and into early spring.
Picking juniper berries is a simple process that can be done by hand. They can easily be picked off the bush with your fingers or you can cut them off with pruning shears.
I love foraging for the added benefit that it gives me a chance to get outside and enjoy nature while harvesting food and medicine.
I hope this article sparks your curiosity about Juniper Berries, one of my favorite wild winter edible foods. The flavor is truly rewarding after a foraging adventure. Explore more juniper articles here!
Disclaimer: outdoorapothecary.com is informational in nature and is not to be regarded as a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. While we strive to be 100% accurate, it is solely up to the reader to ensure proper plant identification.
Some wild plants are poisonous or can have serious adverse health effects. We are not health professionals, medical doctors, nor are we nutritionists. It is up to the reader to verify nutritional information and health benefits with qualified professionals for all edible plants listed in this website. The information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the guidance of your qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.
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