Juniper Berry - Juniperus communis
Have you ever approached a tree and compared what it's like to be near it versus to be near other herbaceous plants? It's profoundly different, right? Each tree has a distinct way about it too, I've come to notice, and if you're like me and want to know such things, we can. Juniper is the one I speak to today. Juniper is a hardy one with a 'fierce Mama' way and carries myths and legends through her aromatic branches, forward and backward in time and place, of embodying renewal, being a great source of protection, being a talisman against misfortune, poor luck or disease, and overseeing the safety of women and their babies.
Many see the trunks mysteriously twisted and there are so many ancient tales of how this has come to be. From energy vortexes to trade winds, supporters fervently debate this phenomena, and Juniper just thrives and keeps doing what Juniper does. It's able to grow in some inhospitable places too, clinging to craggy moors and mountain sides, arid dry landscapes, and also within open meadows with plenty of Sun. Juniper will bend to the elements and consider the weather, and much more I'm sure, and yet continue to just be.
Our First Nations People of North America honored Juniper for medicine and food and some tribes ground the dried berries and made them into patties to eat for keeping them strong during the later winter months or in times of need. They say it "keeps the body and soul together". Their general belief is that Juniper berries help us get tougher, meaning more able to resist illness and firm up our boundaries with the microbial world as well as resist the conditions of poverty associated-disorders and other such conditions as dysentery, cholera, intestinal parasites and the like. Some tribes teach of toasting the branches and making tea with this to help relax a mother into childbirth. Juniper berries are found in many a remedy for the common cold and flu and it was also decocted as a blood tonic with other plants to treat anemia and re-energize the body. For the Navajo, these mystical berries are called "ghost beads" or "juniper eyes," and were worn as jewelry to prevent nightmares and keep one from "getting lost in the dark". Juniper berry tea was given to pregnant woman as 1-2 cups per month to strengthen the womb for birth and a safe delivery and they continued this several months postpartum, yes while breast feeding.
Medicinal & Edible Parts:
Needles, berries (cones), wood, and bark for purification smoke; needles, female berries (cones) and root for medicine; female berries (cones) for food.
The potent diuretic, antimicrobial, antiseptic, carminative, uterine stimulant, vermifuge, and pain relieving properties of Juniper (Juniperus communis) lend themselves well to treatment of a variety of internal and external conditions. Historically, Juniper berry has served as a treatment against many infectious diseases as well as an aid for childbirth. The hypnotic aroma of the burning, aromatic wood binds groups around a fire as much as one alone, with their universe. Making smudge bundles from the needled branches are an ancient practice as well as grinding the dried or crushed berries into aromatic incense the original way, if one chooses to learn this skill instead of burning the toxic adulterated offerings of incense so commonly found today. I have a few recipes for Kyphi that contain Juniper berry and it's so intoxicating when burned. Place a few dried berries on a hot coal from the fire will release this aromatic smoke.
Here's a common question many herbalists hear:
"The Juniper tree beside my house is loaded with blue berries. When is the best time to harvest them?"
My honest and safe response:
Possibly never unless you know the Latin name of your tree.
Of the near 45 species of Juniper, only a small number are poisonous and a majority have bitter fruits. Only a few yield edible berries, which are technically modified cones, and only one is routinely used for flavoring and medicine. It gives gin it's distinct flavor which people either love or hate. The berries are often worked into our sauerkraut recipes and marinade or brine recipes for wild meats. We learned of this from ancient stories of Juniper in food preparation and it's truly exquisite how just a few in a pot of stew can tap into ancestral memories that calm and nourish the soul.
Edible Juniper Berries Include These Species:
CAUTIONARY NOTE: The berries of Juniperus sabina and Juniperus oxycedrus are not safe for human consumption and should be avoided.
The Juniper most commonly called upon for medicine and food, at least today in the modern herbal world, is... Common Juniper, Juniperus communis. It occurs naturally in Asia, Europe and North America, and it's the parent of dozens of popular ornamental varieties. When it comes to medicine making though, know your plant well.
Juniperus virginiana - Red Cedar - take a good look at the needles, shape of the berry (cones) and the fact that there are no immature and mature berries ripening together. These can be harvested but are not as aromatic as Juniperus communis. Honoring the medicine means knowing your plant well before making medicine with it.
In the wild, Common Juniper can be any shape from low spreading shrub to, less commonly, a 25-foot tree. Usually it stays around 6-10 feet or so. Many Junipers turn out to be Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana. This native species is probably the most common Juniper in many North American gardens. Although Red Cedar berries are edible, they are a little more bitter with the aromatics compared to Juniperus communis. If you want tasty, medicinal Juniper berries and do not have a Juniperus communis, it would be best to find and plant one. Even better, find a female Juniper! Arborists are a great resource for finding Junipers to plant.
Junipers bear both male and female berries (cones). Most Junipers are dioecious, meaning male and female berries (cones) are found on separate trees. Ash, Holly, Ginkgo, and Nettles are dioecious beings too, to name a few others.
The smaller male cones produce pollen sacs that release pollen grains in spring and summer for Juniper is wind pollinated. The female cones have succulent and fleshy scales called sporophylls, and these scales fuse together after pollination. Enclosing the hard seed coat, the berries (cones) take one to three years to ripen depending upon the species which is why you will see green and ripe blue ones together on the same branches. It's rare to have generations of berries ripening together at different rates on the same plant, and for me is a signature of the magical nature existing within it's medicine. The berries (cones) range from bluish to purplish-black or red and have a smooth, whitish bloom that gives them the appearance of a polished blueberry.
Be warned that birds and small mammals love Juniper berries as much as we do so respectful negotiations with them will need to happen if you want some of the bounty.
*Honor the medicine of a stronger ally means being safe and wise.
Taking Juniper Berry as medicine means short-term, or pulsed doses.
This is a potent medicine not intended for long-term dosing. Infusions, decoctions and tinctures of Juniper berry are intended for short term dosing of up to 6 weeks to get through acute situations. 'Pulsing' means taking your remedy in a rhythmic dosing pattern, For example, taking one cup per week. They are impressively anti-inflammatory and a strong carminative making them a useful remedy to soothe the gastrointestinal system during conditions such as upset stomach or indigestion, heartburn, flatulence, bloating, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal infections, and intestinal worms. The antiseptic properties in Juniper disinfect the urinary tract to provide treatment and relief for conditions like urinary tract infections, urethritis, kidney stones, and bladder stones. Juniper is a diuretic to help flush excess fluids from the body. This can help rid the body of excess uric acid which can lead to gout flare ups. Ingested Juniper is high in natural insulin precursors and therefore helps balance blood sugar levels. Please remember, do not take this instead of some daily regime from your doctor for your blood sugar regulation. This is not for regular daily medicine taking. Juniper also alleviates problems associated with menstruation with intense PMS symptoms and scanty or no blood flow. It is a uterine stimulant and so directs blood flow to the uterus for stimulating delayed menstruation as well as for stagnant circulation through the pelvis which can look like PCOS (poly cystic ovarian syndrome) and endometriosis, to name a few conditions.
Topical Applications of Juniper Berry
Juniper Essential Oil can be applied topically to treat skin ailments and conditions that are starving for deeper tissue rejuvenation actions. As a superior detoxifier, it has the ability to stimulate repair and smooth the skin and complexion and is thus helpful in conditions of acne, athlete's foot, warts, skin growths, psoriasis, and eczema. The antibacterial properties make topical applications an obvious one for wounds but it also provides pain relief for joint and muscle pain and so has it's place in remedies for those suffering from arthritis and rheumatism as well as minor traumatic injuries such as sprains and strains. Juniper berry is a great treatment for skin wounds and snakebites but I prefer to make a decoction for wound washing in these cases. I've also mixed this with Calendula flower as a decoction for soaking puncture wounds of the feet with great results.
Women with stagnant pelvic circulation, PCOS, and endometriosis respond well to making a plaster over the womb by mixing equal parts of bentonite clay with ground dried Juniper Berries and a touch of castor oil or Mugwort infused oil to make a paste and applying this moist over the lower abdomen. Rest with a warm compress for 30 minutes and rinse off in the bath or shower. Repeat weekly or more often if needed.
Medicine Forms of Juniper Berry:
Juniper berry is available in dried form for making capsules (my least favorite way to work with most herbs) and for infusions/decoctions in boiled water for ingestion, moist compresses and soaks. It's also available as an essential oil for topical applications in infused oils and salves, hydrotherapy (salts and scrubs are my favorites), and aromatherapy inhalation. Fresh berries can be tinctured or dried if you have a good source for fresh harvesting. Remember, short-term daily doses and pulsed doses for up to 6 weeks is considered the safe and wise window for taking internally for most people. Smudge bundles of the stems with needles and berries can be make for burning and loose incense making with whole or crushed berries and loose needles or shaved wood or bark burned on a piece charcoal is so aromatic, clearing, cleansing and truly hypnotic! May you find your way with Juniper in your home apothecary.
Thank you for honoring the medicine of Juniper. xo- Jen
Come deepen your walk with our original medicine plants and make them part of your primary healthcare system for you and your loved ones. In our Becoming the Roots 10 week course we walk together through building your own apothecary filled with potent medicines you learn to make yourself. This a starter course for just that, to get you started with a commitment that is perfect for beginning. In the Birthing an Herbalist in 13 Moons course all the medicine making skills are in there too, along with more advanced skills and we then deepen your practice and skills as a home or community herbalist. Let's tighten the weave of who you are, right where you are, as you begin to birth and walk the path of your inner herbalist. Herbal courses on-line are designed as a start at anytime program for you with Jen Costa, Herbalist, Critical Care RN, CST, and Teacher. Live in-person classes begin each May in Woodstock, NY - Details in links below. Honoring the medicine is our way. xo-Jen
Jennifer Costa, Herbalist-RN, Teacher, BS, EM-CST, and Founder of ElderMoon School of Herbs & Earth Medicine