Juniper berries are small--usually blue--berries of both wild and cultivated juniper bushes and trees. The berries of both European and American species provide the same flavors and active ingredients. Medical studies do not support all traditional claims for juniper berries' healing properties. The juniper's astringent taste makes overuse of the herb as a tea or spice unlikely.
Widespread on both sides of the Atlantic, European junipers and American junipers bear similar bitter blue fruits. European varieties flavor gin and contribute aromatic oils to herbal appetite stimulants, diuretics, antiseptics and pain relievers. American Indians used the berry as a cleansing tonic and a food for desperate times. The astringent piney taste makes juniper a pleasant condiment for venison and other wild meat, but not attractive as a steady diet. Currently many naturopaths recommend juniper for a variety of urinary ailments and as part of a cleansing diet.
Junipers grow in most parts of North America including the high mountains. The trees adapt to dry climates and poor soil--under difficult conditions junipers grow slowly and even small junipers could be extremely old. Oregon's oldest known juniper sprouted more than 1,600 years ago. Called eastern red cedar in many parts of the U.S., junipers blossom early in the year but berries don't mature until fall. In fall when the berries ripen, wild birds flock to the trees to feed. Uneaten berries remain on the trees for months.
Juniper varieties grow in many shapes and heights, making this evergreen a very common choice for urban landscaping. Some types bear red or orange berries. Red or orange fruits of the common yew could be confused with the red variety of juniper fruit--avoid using any red evergreen berries, since the berries of the yew are extremely poisonous. Blue juniper berries vary from about 4 mm to 15 mm in diameter. The resinous and piney colorless pulp contains many tiny seeds.
The aromatic oil of juniper berries forms the active ingredient in juniper tonics and treatments. Added to turpentine, juniper oil liniment relieves aching muscles and joints. Culpepper's Herbal recommends juniper for treating coughs, flatulence, skin diseases, hemorrhoids and intestinal worms. One tbsp. of ripe juniper berries, crushed and steeped in boiling water for 20 minutes, constitutes half a daily dose of cleansing juniper berry tea.
The aromatic quality and strong flavor of juniper berries contributes to a northern European sauce traditionally used to balance the strong flavor of wild meat. Juniper also complements strong European sauerkrauts. As a winter survival food, the berries provide more vitamins than calories.