Juniper – Miscellany of the 22 Botanicals

IN

One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.

– Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire 1968

There is a perfumery to juniper that elicits something otherworldly, even mystical.  Various cultures across the planet have used all parts of the juniper plant to ward against bad magic, plague and other negative forces. Cultures from Eastern Europe, the Americas and the far east all use juniper for these similar reasons.

But, in a society that favours hard evidence and science against anything less tangible our gut reaction to a plant that gets rid of “negativity”, is to think, “what a load of bollocks”. However, the esteemed herbalist Michael Moore sees this other sphere of our existence in a more positive light and he suggests that we shouldn’t be so dismissive when there’s cross-cultural consensus.

Moore states, “Overlapping traditions are useful in triangulating valid functions in folk medicine. If unrelated traditions say that yarrow clots the blood, it is easy to admit that such is probably the case; if they say that juniper clears bad “vibes”, many of us will back of and start to twitch sceptically… accepting the possibility of drug effect on the one hand and … rejecting…warding off bad influences on the other… the two go hand in hand”

Negative energies and other mysticism aside, juniper has been used in beer brewing for many years and not just for its flavour but for the antiseptic qualities.  The Vikings, who were as fearsome drinkers as they were warriors, frequently used juniper when they brewed their ales.

There are various recipes out there for Norwegian farmhouse ales and these are perhaps the closest to the ancient Viking ales. What is of most interest about the process of brewing such ales is how juniper can be used throughout the process from treating the water, to adding aroma and flavour and also adding bitterness.  In this respect, the Vikings were light years ahead of many of the brewers around the world, as they were using juniper to treat the water before brewing. This means they were at least aware that water could contain something that would spoil the beer.  One could imagine that Viking brewers may see this as, “ridding the water of evil”, or something equally as mystic and they may well have even conducted ceremonies before splitting the branches and placing them into the water pre-brew then gently heating until the juniper has infused with the water. A process that would make the juniper-infused water anti-bacterial as well as free from bacteria.

It would often appear that we are attracted to tastes and smells that do us good. Animal fats, for instance, seem to taste better during the colder months when (traditionally), we need to put on an extra few pounds for warmth. (This is why many cultures in cooler climes have many recipes for fatty meats, just look at the traditional Scottish foods such as haggis and lorne sausage)!  So too then, the smell of juniper branches being burned. The heady smell that fills the air will be destroying airborne viruses and diseases.  Or as some cultures might argue, it will be getting rid of negative vibes.

It is these antibacterial and antiviral properties that mean juniper is a well-used herb in the herbalists armoury. It can be used to treat cystitis, coughs, colds and even gout. Although, unfortunately, a herbalist does not administer it as a gin and tonic. Steam inhalations of the berries are recommended for coughs and colds as they help clear the airways and as an herbal infusion to treat gout and cystitis.

Juniper berries

Cooks should also keep some berries to hand as they go really well with pork, wild boar and other game

Cooks should also keep some berries to hand as they go really well with pork, wild boar and other game. My personal favourite is to gently poach a wild boar steak in a rich beer, such as a trappist or porter and add some juniper berries to the mix. Then reduce down the beer until it becomes a coating sauce, serve with sauerkraut and of course a glass of gin and tonic.

Foraging for Juniper berries

The urbanite can forage for juniper berries as much as the countryside dweller, for me, it is just a short walk from my house into my front garden. Of course, this is because I cultivate my own, but for look out for prostrate juniper a plant that is often planted in urban gardens, as it may sound it grows close to the ground. Its berries can be fairly small but are none the less potent enough to make a gin.

To be rather more wild head out to upland areas in the UK, the Med in the south and from Norway to Russia in the Artic.  The northern states and Canada, and over the Western Himalayas are also haunts of juniper bushes.
Juniper is a small tree or shrub and it can grow up to 4 meters. The leaves are short with rather spiky needles, each needle grows to around 1.5cm long in whorls of three. The berries take around three years to form so if you do have bushes in your vicinity then keep a note of them as you may wish to return over a period of time in order to get enough berries for your venison steak or homemade gin.

To harvest spread out some kind of cloth or material under the bush and whack it as if you were beating a rug the berries will soon drop off.

A final note has to be given as a slight word of warning when consuming juniper berries. The origination of Gin being called mothers ruin is not down to the depressive effects of Gin, indeed, it is no more or less depressive than any other alcohol drank in quantity. The unfortunate nick name has possibly come for the fact that juniper berries have been used as an abortitant, possibly due to the small amount of thujone that they contain. It is therefore not advisable to drink a bottle of gin whilst pregnant and possibly you should hold back on cooking yourself a big slab of game cooked in the berries too!

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