Juniper – Juniperus communis L.
Part(s) used: fruits, leaves
Flavour: aromatic, spicy
Juniper is famed as the principal ingredient in gin, which is named after the French for the tree genièvre. Although claimed by the British for their own, it began life in Belgium when juniper was added to mask the harsh flavour of a 50% strong spirit, and add a medicinal benefit. From this simple beginning grew the drink we know today, as distillers experimented with a whole range of different spices to create the complex flavour profile that is now enjoyed all over the world. Despite gin including anywhere between 7 and 30 different botanicals, juniper remains the fundamental element of this strongly aromatic spirit.
Juniper fruits were valued primarily for their effect on digestion, easing wind and stomach cramps (cholic). The 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys records that when he was constipated he was advised by a friend to take some “strong water made of juniper”. It was considered beneficial in many other conditions as a urinary antiseptic, diuretic, to stimulate menstruation, for asthma and coughs, and externally for rheumatism and to kill parasites.
The distinctive smell can be enjoyed by scratching the leaves and berries, and it is widely used throughout Europe as a spice with meat. It is excellent paired with game, in terrines or sauces – try with elderberries and wild thyme to make a sauce for venison. Only a few of the fruits are needed, crushed in a pestle and mortar.
The volatile oils that give the strong scent and flavour are considered the main chemicals responsible for the medicinal actions, showing diuretic effect and activity against pathogenic viruses, bacteria and the fungus Candida albicans. It is these chemicals that impart the flavour, when concentrated to the essential oil it has been shown to consist of least 80 different chemicals. The principal elements are the pinenes, which is responsible for the characteristic aroma of most conifers conifers. It also includes the citrusy limonene, and camphene, which lends a more cooling herbal note.
The main herbal use nowadays is as an essential oil in creams or balms, applied externally to stimulate circulation and relieve the pain of muscle and joint aches whether caused by arthritis, exercise or injury. According to 16th century herbalist Culpeper, juniper “helps the gout and sciatica and strengthens the limbs of the body”, and it is still employed externally as a muscle rub in oil today.
Juniper is native to the temperate northern hemisphere and grows in all well drained soils. It is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. The ‘berries’ are actually fleshy cones that take three years to ripen. When harvesting only pick the ripe berries which should come off easily.
It used to be much more prolific across the UK, but died out and is now has ‘near threatened’ conservation status. This was due to lack of management due to cheaper import of the crop, both overgrazing and lack of grazing (which would give it space to grow) and the historical use to make fires for illegal whisky stills as it produces very little smoke.
An infused oil is an excellent way to extract the properties of most plants that are to be used externally. The oil can be applied directly, have essential oils added to it, be added to creams, and serves as base for balms.
Recipe – Juniper Infused Oil
- 80g dried juniper berries
- 300ml of olive oil
1. Break up berries in a pestle and mortar. Add into a heatproof bowl and cover with oil.
2. Place the bowl inside larger pan then pour freshly boiled water into the larger pan so it has contact with the smaller pan two thirds of the way up. Cover with a loose fitting lid and gently heat for four hours, taking care not to heat the water to bubbling point
3. Pour the mixture through muslin lined kitchen funnel into a bottle. Store in a cool dry place and use within a year.