The story of juniper is filled with history. In Europe 200 years ago, juniper was thought to be extremely strengthening to the body: it was administered to the sick to restore, and to the well to maintain good health.
Chapter from “Thirty Plants That Can Save Your Life” by Dr. Douglas Schar
Chapter from “Thirty Plants That Can Save Your Life” by Dr. Douglas Schar
Juniper berries are probably most commonly used today in gin, a word that itself derives from the word juniper. The story of juniper is quite interesting, filled with history. In Europe two hundred years ago, juniper berries were thought to be terribly strengthening to the body, they were administered to the sick, and to the healthy to maintain health. The most common usage was in a liqueur called junivere, the best said to be made by the Dutch.
The part of the juniper bush that was used to make this liquor was the berry. The berries were collected from the trees and floated in alcohol, the health agent in the berries thus transferred to the alcohol which is a little more readily consumed than the pine cone like berries. The term juniper berries is a loose one as the juniper is a relation of pine tree, and the fruit of the juniper is more like a pine cone than the berries we associate with straw and rasp. The flavor is quite similar to pine cones, and just about as palatable. One does not pick them off the tree and have a good chew.
The liqueur, junivere, was perhaps one of the most popular tonics in Europe just at the moment the Europeans were colonizing the world, and as they traveled the world, with them came junivere. As nasty as it was for the white man to move into other people’s countries and take over for financial exploitation (I am a bleeding heart liberal) the native diseases rather had the last laugh. As the Europeans moved outward they came into contact with all sorts of nasty diseases not found back home, and lots and lots of people died. The statistics of the death rates in the colonies was phenomenal, and as such, folks were very health conscious, or more importantly, staying well conscious. The tonic plants, plants said to preserve health, became very popular in the colonies, including junivere.
The gin and tonic dates to this period in world history. As the British took over India , they got hit with malaria. The preventative medicine of the day was the gin (juniper) and tonic,
(water flavored with quinine, the leading anti malarial agent.) Though the beverage has become a country club beverage, its roots are purely medicinal. Juniper and tonic water was taken on a daily basis to avoid coming down with malaria. The various Bombay gins still sold today, track their history back to India and malaria.
Though the juniper berries we find as a flavoring agent in gin are the seeds of the European juniper bush ( ), the juniper family has a number of relations living all over the world, and the uses are quite similar.
In the bayou, juniper berries are used by the hoodoo practitioners in a potion said to aid in conjuring and the general practice of magic and witchcraft. Of course, witches being rather cagey people, it’s hard to track down the exact purpose of the ointments, all ingredients are aromatic, save the fish berries, and it might be applied prior to any magic that needs to be performed.
St. Joseph ‘s mixture:
buds from the garden of gilead
berries of fish
Japanese scented lucky beans
large star anise
The ancient Israelites are said to have known the juniper, as it grows in the mountains all over the Near East . The Arabians today use the oil of the plant to treat liver afflictions and as a general tonic.
In the United States, the micmac and malecite indians, native to the maritime provinces of Canada used juniper (juniperus communis) for sprains, wounds, tuberculosis, ulcers, internal and external, consumption, and rheumatism. Their general belief was the juniper hardened up the body and made it better at fighting off illness.
In South America a different juniper, genipa americana , is used a tonic and for other conditions. This notion of making booze with juniper berries is a popular one not exclusive to the Europeans, the South Americans brew up a cocktail called ade, which is taken for staying well. Whereas the European gin is merely flavored with juniper berries, the South American version is actually fermented from juniper berries. The juniper berries are collected and mixed with sugar and in some countries aloe vera, and allowed to ferment into a yeasty beverage that is used to treat whatever ails you. The berries are also made into jams and marmalades, a rather objectionable notion if you ask me. Just imagine a blob of sweetened pine cones smeared on your breakfast toast. To each his own.
In case you should find yourself in a situation where you are being attacked by parasitic catfish, juniper may help you out. It seems the Cuna Indians, also from South America way, have a fretful time with a catfish that swims up and attaches itself to the body for the purpose of sucking blood. It seems the fish preys on people out for a bath, having a jumbo leach hanging on your back is the end of the party, and to avoid this the Indians smear themselves with the berries to repel the nasty varmint. Between the piranhas, the catfish, and the little fish that swims up into genitalia, I think on my next trip to South America I will stick to the pool at the hotel. The rind is also used in body tattooing, though its primary use, and one that is collectively agreed upon, is in staying well, and getting rid of anything you might pick up.
The South Americans, along with the rest of the world use ground juniper berries and other parts of the trees to treat wounds and sores, essentially as a local antibiotic. There is some scientific basis to this, the phenol contained in the plant is, in fact, a bacteria killer, which would keep a wound safe from infection.
Not to get personal or anything, but did you ever notice that a good gin and tonic sends you to the restroom more than usual? I know bathroom talk is a no-no in western society, since none of us do that. However, in the interest of science, I raise the topic. Juniper is a fairly powerful diuretic, the berries and the liquors flavored with them, get the kidneys flushing out, the manifestation being that you run to the bathroom and pee more than usual. Though a little annoying if in the car, generally this is a good thing to have happen. Getting the kidneys to cleanse the body of toxins, and get them to work overtime is a good thing in the toxic world we live in.
While we’re still personal and apeaking of tidying up our interiors, juniper acts as an intestinal antiseptic, or germ killer. The colonists around the world came in contact with what we now call Montezumas Revenge as they moved about. The root of this condition, unpleasant with modern facilities and formerly a nightmare in the rustic days, is unfamiliar beasts taking up residence in the intestinal tract. The colonists were right on when they took gin every day, it would have indeed killed anything down the pipes that had no place there.
The modern gin is relatively low in juniper content, the extract is usually somewhere around .01 percent and the juniper oil content somewhere around .006 percent. If you want to make a beverage a little higher in content, and thus in medicinal power, take some commercial gin and put a cup of juniper berries in and allow them to float for six months or so.
In this edible class are the fruits of the California Juniper (Juniperus Californica, Carr.), the Utah Juniper (J. Utahensis, Lem.), and the Check-barked or Alligator Juniper (J. pachyphlaea, Torr.). The first two are stunted trees or shrubs of arid regions of pure desert. The last is a tree attaining sometimes a height of fifty feet or more, abundant at rather high elevations in Arizona , New Mexico and Southwestern Texas , and remarkable for its thick, hard bark, deeply furrowed and checked in squares. The “berries” of all these species have been approved by Indian palates, and are eaten either raw or dried and ground into a meal and prepared as mush or cakes. Under necessity they might serve to keep body and soul together, those of the Alligator Juniper being considered the best. Cakes made from these are said on good authority to be palatable even to whites, and to have the merit of easy digestibility.
Despite the fact juniper berries are rather like eating a pine flavored chewing gum, they have been used for food. The Native Americans preferred California juniper, Utah juniper, and the alligator juniper as sources of food. I say food, as they were not actually eaten like we eat strawberries. The berries were dried and ground to make a pine scented meal, then shaped into patties and fried. This gets the bonus yuck rating. Perhaps even a double yuck rating. The Native Americans found that these juniper fritters stimulated the flow of urine in a big way.
Whereas the Cuna Indians feel that parasitic catfish are repulsed by juniper, the Gypsies feel that juniper is an attractant to trout and eels, and use the plant to bring those little fishies onto the hook. The recipe calls for oil of rodium, oil of juniper, and oil of cedar. The trick seems to be to put your worms in moss sprinkled with this magic oil mixture. The worms should be kept in the moss for a couple of hours, then used to fish. The oil can also be used on other baits, just put a drop or two on the bait. Who knows.
Apart from food and tonic, the Native Americans used juniper in gynecological health. The Zunis toasted the branches and made a tea to relax the muscles before childbirth began and to speed recovery from the delivery. The Tewa Indians burnt the branches in the chambers of the home of a woman that had just given birth. The Spanish Americans learned of the use of this native plant from the various tribes and drank a cup or so of the tea a month before the baby was due to assure a safe delivery. In addition, the same Southwesterners used the tea to treat an inflamed stomach and relieve the symptoms of griping (muscle spasms). Of course we already know if the stomachache was due to some organism setting up shop in the stomach, the remedy would have been quite effective.
In India and Pakistan , the people are quite familiar with the plant, the British didn’t have to haul the berries all the way from England , there was already a local source. The Indians believe the berries to be tonic, stimulating, and kidney activating. Here’s a record of use from India :
In the south, juniper has been used for asthma, as well as a gunpowder ingredient, and last but not least, a product to make ironing a little easier. Its seems that a hot iron brushed over some juniper twigs makes the whole affair go a little easier.
For asthma, the berries are soaked in whiskey, a few tablespoonsful taken each day.
Who would have ever thought there could be so much to such a stupid little tree and its berries. The past of the bush that many of us already have in our yard is rather shocking, just goes to show you how much we have already lost. For our purposes we will be using juniper berries, fresh or dried. Juniper berries are easy to come by, pick some up at the grocery or plant a juniper tree for a ready source. As with all our ingredients, the fresher the better, and what could be fresher than berries from your own tree. Run to the garden center and ask for juniperus communis tree, plant according to instructions, and within a year or two, go out with your bowel and pick away.
Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.