Botanical Name: Juniperus communis
Common Names: Juniper Berry, Gin Berry, Common Juniper
Origin: Temperate areas of Europe
Juniper Berry is a hardy, upright, evergreen, coniferous shrub with grey-green, aromatic, needle-like foliage. It is slow growing and will reach 4 m high and 1 m wide at maturity. The fruit are known as berries, although they are not true berries but instead dark blue-black scales from the seed cones. Juniper Berries are classed as a spice and have a long history of traditional use including giving gin its distinctive flavour.
The Juniper Berry thrives in full sun or part shade and is drought-tolerant once established. It’s also very tolerant of cold conditions and will survive even quite severe frosts. Juniper Berry will also grow in a wide variety of well-drained soil types and pH levels. The common Juniper Berry is usually dioicous which means that separate male and female plants are required to produce seeds. However, there are some self-fertile plants available that produce berries on a single shrub and are ideal for the small garden. This is what we have growing in our garden.
Berries are harvested in late spring and early summer when they are black, leathery and highly aromatic, but they can take up to 2 years to ripen. Therefore, new green berries and the previous year’s maturing black berries will be seen on the plant together. Juniper Berry is also suited to growing in a large pot.
Seed propagation is complex and requires cold stratification and an 18-month germination period. Therefore, propagation is usually by mature, 10 cm, wood cuttings with a heel tip. However, this is also slow and may take up to 12 months for roots to establish. In the wild, vegetative reproduction occurs when old plants fall to the ground and roots develop from branches that are in contact with the soil. Finding a self-fertile shrub from which to create new cutting-grown plants will mean that only one plant is needed to produce berries.
Resinous, sharp and floral. The major flavour compound is Pinene.
Juniper Berries have a strong, bitter, woody-pine flavour and are used as a condiment to enhance other foods. They are used sparingly and crushed just before use to release the aromatic compounds that will evaporate quickly when the oil sacs are broken. Juniper Berries partner well with cabbage and beetroot to make sauerkraut and coleslaw. They’re also used in marinades, rubs and stuffings to tenderise and flavour meat, and their resinous qualities work well with oily fish. The berries are often used in a cure for salmon gravlax.
The essential oil is a common flavouring for gin and other alcoholic beverages. The leaves and stems can be steeped in boiling water to make tea, or the berries are used to make a gin flavoured tea. Additionally, the roasted seed may be used as a coffee substitute.
Nutrients of the Juniper Berry include copper, chromium, calcium, iron, limonene, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium and vitamin C, along with tannins, resin, tar and terpenes.
Juniper Berry has a history of medicinal use. When fully ripe the berries are believed to be antiseptic, antioxidant, diuretic and carminative. They’ve been used to treat digestive and urinary problems, arthritis and gout. Juniper Berry essential oil is used in aromatherapy, and Juniper Berry ointment is used for wounds and skin problems. Other non-culinary uses include in perfumes, as a fabric dye and as an insecticide.
The ornamental, dense wood of the Juniper is highly valued by woodworkers for its perfume, and the leaves are used as an insect repellent and fumigate.
In our garden, I’ve found the Juniper Berry is a highly attractive location for small birds such as double barred finches to build their nests. The spiky leaves provide protection and hidden niches.
The nest of a double barred finch in our Juniper Berry.