Joel and I were in Tahoe recently and I said to him, “I’m sure we can find some Juniper trees while we’re here.” After spending many years in Yosemite, I figured Juniper trees were fairly common in the Sierras, but we didn’t see any in Tahoe! However, not more than a week later, when I was back home in southern Oregon and running on a different route than usual due to serious heavy rains that flooded my regular path, I found a stand of Juniper trees with some plump berries. So, right here at home, I was foraging for Juniper Berries!
Juniper berries are the primary flavoring agent for gin, and they are in an ingredient in my Infused Winter Gin recipe. In fact, the name “gin” is derived from either the French or Dutch (no one knows for sure) word for Juniper. But, Juniper berries are good for way more than just gin…
The “berries” are actually fleshy cones, not true berries at all, that are usually covered with a white powdery bloom. That bloom is actually wild yeast, and I have used the berries to make my own wild yeast starter for homebrewing.
Beautiful and fragrant, Juniper trees have become a favorite of mine over the years. They often have a gnarly and weathered look to them that I find pleasant.
Dried Juniper berries are commonly used as a spice or flavoring agent in brines and meat, particularly for game birds and venison. I have use dried Juniper berries in my sauerkraut and love the subtle flavor it gives. Dried juniper berries can purchased here from Mountain Rose Herbs.
Juniper berries are also a highly effective medicinal, as I can attest to from first hand experience. They are most notably a powerful diuretic and extremely effective in treating UTI’s (urinary tract infections). I have been prone to these horrible and painful infections in the past, and after deciding to quit taking unnecessary antibiotics when I was in my mid-twenties, I started drinking Uva Ursi and Juniper tea whenever I felt one coming on. I’m not going to lie, the pain was still there, but after 2 or 3 bouts within a year or so I was able to combat the infection for good and haven’t had one since… more than 15 years later.
Beyond its culinary and medicinal use, it is also amazingly beautiful and has a wonderful incense like fragrance. If nothing else, it will look and smell pretty in your home. Or you can turn it into an amazing smelling Juniper Spice Beard Balm for that bearded man in your life!
One thing to mention, there are certain varieties that contain a powerful resin that is toxic to humans if eaten in large amounts. Please be aware of this. Taste a tiny bit of a berry and if it is harsh and bitter spit it out and do not use internally. I tasted these berries that I collected and they were wonderfully piney and slightly sweet, not even a hint of bitterness. Amazing, actually.
I looked up Juniper in The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, in which I discovered Smreka, a fermented Juniper berry soft drink. The only ingredients are Juniper berries (check) and water (check). And time, of course… every ferment needs time. I had to try it!
Would you expect any less of me? I sure hope not! 1/2 cup fresh Juniper berries (NOT the harsh & bitter resinous kind!) to 1 quart fresh, clean water (non-chlorinated preferred). Cover with a cloth and let sit.
Stir the berries around occasionally and when they sink it should be done. It will probably take about a month or so, depending on temperature. I only started this yesterday on a whim, I’ll let you know how it turns out.
But for now, although Juniper berries are more than just gin, please don’t forget about the gin! Go have a martini and think about how wonderful Juniper berries are. You can thank me later!