The juniper berry (Juniperus communis) is not a berry at all, but a tiny cone from the evergreen-like juniper tree. In ancient times, the piney-scented “berries” were believed to ward off witches, evil spirits, curses and contagion. Early Greek, Roman and Arab physicians considered the juniper berry a medicinal fruit; Renaissance doctors prescribed it for snake bite, plague and pestilence.
Today, juniper berry is best known as the spice that defines the flavor of gin. In early 18th Century Netherlands, an apothecary developed the brew as an herbal tonic and called it jenever, Dutch for juniper. Due to its delightful flavor (enhanced, no doubt, by its alcoholic content), the remedy soon became a very popular drink. If you’ve ever enjoyed a martini or two – gin and tonic, Long Island iced tea or a Tom Collins perhaps – the next day you may have felt you were going to the bathroom more than usual. You would be correct. Juniper berry is an exceptional diuretic (a compound that increases urine output)! But the spice has other virtues, like fighting infection, relieving indigestion, arthritis, gout pain and dissolving kidney stones. It’s refreshing fragrance and antiseptic qualities also make juniper useful as an air freshener. At one time, the Swiss put the berries in heating fuel for schools to sanitize classrooms.
Buying and Storage
The juniper tree thrives in the Northern Hemisphere where it can grow anywhere from 6 feet (more like a shrub) to 33 feet tall. The berries take 3 years to ripen – first green, turning blue, then deep purple. Dried, they darken to blue-black. If you’re planning on picking them, wear gloves to protect your hands from the unfriendly spikes surrounding the berries. Also, make sure you’re picking the edible variety – some are poisonous!
Dried berries are generally available in food stores. The best ones feel moist and pliable to the touch, fairly easily squashed between the fingers to release the scent and healing oils. Sometimes you’ll find a cloudy bloom on the skin of some berries. It’s a mold and very common because the berries retain moisture, but those with excessive mold should be avoided.
Keep in an airtight container away from heat and light. If the berries become hard, they’ve gone bad and should be tossed out.
Used in moderation, juniper berry should cause no problems for those in general good health. However, in excess the spice, which contains a potent, volatile essential oil, sabinal, can result in severe irritation, especially to the kidneys. Individuals with kidney disease or any other medical condition should consult with their doctors before using. Pregnant women should not use this spice, as it might cause uterine contractions.
Kidney health: Apothecaries once prescribed gin for kidney ailments. Today many medicines aimed at healing the urinary tract contain 1 or more compounds from the spice. Besides acting as a diuretic to increase the kidney filtration rate, juniper kills bacteria and helps clean toxic wastes, so it’s ideal against bladder, urinary tract and prostate infections. It also helps expel gallstones and dissolve kidney stones. Once again, it’s important to remember that large doses can be an irritant to the kidneys, so use moderately.
Inflammation and infection: Juniper berry possesses antiseptic properties that help remove waste and acidic toxins from the body, stimulating a fighting action against bacterial and yeast infections. Thus, it’s been found effective in treating various inflammatory and infectious diseases such as bronchitis, colds, asthma, cough, fungal infections, hemorrhoids, gynecological diseases and wounds. It’s also used to relieve pain and inflammation related to rheumatism and arthritis, as well as to regulate menstruation and relieve menstrual pain. In animal studies it was found to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving activity equal to Indomethacin (Indocin), a non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drug (NSAID) commonly prescribed for arthritis and other pains.
Stomachache: In Germany, juniper berry is officially approved for treating indigestion based on scientific studies which found it helps increase the flow of digestive fluids, improving digestion and eliminating gas and stomach cramping. In folk medicine, juniper berries or their extract are used to pique the appetite, as well as increase peristalsis and intestinal muscle tone.
Contraception: Traditionally, some tribes used the berries to prevent conception. Studies have shown that it can prevent implantation. Pregnant women should not use this spice, as it might cause uterine contractions.
To make a tea: steep a teaspoon of dried, crushed berries in a covered cup of water for fifteen minutes and drink, preferably one to three cups a day.
In the Kitchen
Juniper berry performs a unique role in meat dishes by contributing a freshening or enlivening effect, as well as a strong, hearty flavor. It cuts the gaminess of venison, reindeer, wild boar; reduces the fatty effect of duck and pork; and gives a nice kick to lamb chops, rabbit, beef and chicken, even seafood stews. Germans put it in pot roasts, fermented vegetable dishes such as sauerkraut, and white schnapps. French use it in patés and charcuterie.
Juniper is easy to work with in the kitchen. Just before adding, crush the whole berries with your fingers to release the oils. Less is more: one heaping teaspoon of crushed spice suffices in a dish for 4. It blends well with other herbs, especially thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, allspice, onions and garlic, so use a few berries in a marinade or spice rub. Generally, juniper complements any dish with alcohol, such as coq au vin. Juniper works particularly well with purple fruits – plums blackberries, blueberries – but it’s piney flavor also harmonizes with fruit confections, like apple tart or peach pie.