This might seem like an odd herb to highlight, but it’s an interesting herb to get to know. However, before you go out and pick some juniper berries off your shrubs, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
The type of juniper berries you should use, especially in cooking (yes, you can cook with juniper berries!) are from the juniperus communis plant. There are some rare varieties that are toxic, so don’t pick your own unless you can identify them properly. I have to admit that I’ve never cooked with juniper berries myself, except as part of pickling spices, but a quick internet search yielded some interesting recipes. It might be time to “spice” up my cooking and try some.
I actually never knew that juniper berries are the defining ingredient in gin. In fact, you can’t call it gin without them. I’m not a big fan of gin or hard alcohol in general, but apparently gin aficionados can notice the differing and “delicate notes of juniper” in various brands.
You can even make your own gin if you’re so inclined, and there are websites that will teach you how. The primary botanical ingredients are juniper berries and coriander seeds, but gin also often contains angelica root, orris root, sweet orange peel, and licorice powder. I had no idea!
But now I think it’s time to move on to the medicinal and health benefits of the plant. Juniper was burned in ancient times to ward off evil spirits, but it was also (and still is) used as a disinfectant. You can make a tea with the berries or add a few drops of juniper tincture in hot water with honey for digestive complaints, urinary problems, gout, rheumatism, and arthritis.
Juniper is an anti-inflammatory, and is therefore also used in creams to be applied topically. Since juniper is in the cedar (Cupressaceae) family, some people might worry about applying a cream to their skin if they’re allergic to cedar. Never fear — as long as the cream contains a high-quality essential oil you should be good to go. According to the Center for Aromatherapy Research and Education, CARE, you cannot have an allergic reaction to properly distilled and pure essential oil because it contains no proteins, peptides, or amino acids (the molecules that cause an allergic response).
You can have an allergic reaction to solvents that are used in inferior products, but high-quality essential oils are always distilled without solvents. Finally, the carrier oils used in creams and massage oil, such as almond oil, can cause an allergic reaction in some people. So, it pays to do your research and find a product made with high-quality essential oil and no other ingredients that you know you’re allergic to.
Of course, if you’re allergic to cedar, then you’ll want to avoid juniper tea or at least test out a small amount first.
Juniper is warming to the body, both internally and externally, making it a great winter herb. If the cold weather makes you stiff, juniper cream might provide some soothing heat and take away the pain of sore joints. The tea should help your digestion and warm you up from the inside out. Or perhaps you’ll decide to have a gin and tonic and call it a day!
Copyright © by Bobbi Mullins, originally published December 31, 2012
Tierra, M. The Way of Herbs. 1980. New York.
Lavabre, M. Aromatherapy Workbook. 1990. Vermont
Stewart, D. Raindrop Newsletter: Sensitivities to Essential Oils. The Center for Aromatherapy Research. 2006.