J is for Juniper

Written by Kerry E.B. Black


Juniper grows as a shrub or tall tree whose berries are used in Scandinavian cuisine. A recipe from South Tyrol, Italy also calls for juniper. Ancient and medieval people used the berries as a spice and a diuretic. In the Scottish Highlands, juniper is called aittin, samh, and perhaps mountain yew. Scottish and northern English recipes call for ground juniper juice to impart a spicy flavor to breads, cakes, and game meat. Native North Americans eat a milder version of juniper, and they dry and seal juniper seeds for decorative use. Although not a true berry but rather a variation on a cone, the juniper spice imparts a sharp, distinctive, and piney flavor.

In medieval times, juniper berries flavored whisky in Scotland. The berries flavor other alcoholic beverages such as Swedish “health beer” and French “genevrette.” Today, they flavor gin; in fact, the name gin derives from either the Dutch or French word for juniper.

Burning juniper wood releases aromatic smoke and was burned for purification and to facilitate contact with the Otherworlds. In the British Isles, juniper was burned during the outbreak of plague. During World War II, French nursing staff burned juniper in hospital rooms to fumigate them. Many people use an essential oil extracted from juniper for aromatherapy and in perfumes.

Juniper is not recommended for consumption by pregnant women by the US Medical Association, as it may cause miscarriage. Indeed, some Native American tribes use it as a female contraceptive. In times of famine, tribesmen consume juniper as an appetite suppressant. In Lothian during the Middle Ages, people used the phrase “under the savin tree” as a euphemism for juniper-induced abortion. (Savin was another name for juniper.) Interesting that juniper served as a symbol of the Canaanites’ fertility goddess Ashera. (Astarte in Syria)

Two varieties of juniper have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. It was used during embalming, but a papyrus dating to 1500 BC records using juniper to cure tapeworm infestations. Archeologists believe the Egyptians imported the spice from Greece where the plant grew. Ancient Greeks record using juniper as medicine and they believed the plant increased physical stamina in athletes. Ancient Romans used juniper as an inexpensive substitute for pepper. In Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History,” he reported juniper was blended with pepper, since juniper “have the property, to a marvelous degree, of assuming the pungency of pepper.” The Romans also used the berries for purification and to cure stomach complaints. When avoiding Queen Jezebel, the prophet Elijah hid beneath a juniper, and in the apocryphal bible, Joseph hides Mary and baby Jesus beneath the plant during their flight into Egypt.

During the middle ages, some European cultures believed planting a juniper beside the door deterred a witch from entering a dwelling. However, it was not an infallible stop, because if a witch could correctly guess the number of needles on the plant, entry was unimpeded. Culpepper wrote “Juniper provokes urine exceedingly; it is so powerful a remedy against the dropsy that it cures the disease.” Chinese herbalists regarded juniper as a blood purifier and kidney tonic. The twentieth century European herbalist R.F. Weiss recommended juniper for gout, chronic arthritis, neuralgia, and rheumatism.

Saint Francis of Assis had a friend whose name was Brother Juniper in English, and the Saint wished for a “forest of such Junipers.” Miguel Serra took the name Juniper as well and became a loved and generous missionary to California. During his 2015 visit, Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra which made Juniper the first saint canonized in the United States. (Native Americans of the region, however, associate Serra and his missions with the destruction of their culture.)

Juniper features in many written works, including those by T.S. Elliott, Victor Hugo’s “To Knight Errant,” John Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” Walt Whitman’s “American Feuillage,” and Oscar Wilde’s “Charmides.” Christopher Smart in “Jubilate Agno Fragment D” says, “Let Pulteney, house of Pulteney rejoice with tragion a shrub like juniper.” Allen Ginsberg’s “Rocky Mountain Dharma Center” says, “…tail turned to red sunset on a juniper crown a lone magpie caws.” Monica Furlong wrote a children’s novel titled “Juniper” about a princess who chooses a different path, and Kelley and Thomas French wrote a memoir about their micro-preemie daughter by the same name. Famed protagonist from the children’s series ”

Juniper is a name growing in popularity, though most Junipers are girls. Pokemon hosts a Professor Juniper.