Juniper berries are most famously used to flavour gin but have been used by various cultures for thousands of years. Juniper “berries” are actually seeds produced by the juniper plant
and have a distinctive pine-like scent and flavour. In this article, we’ll delve into the uses, benefits, and characteristics of juniper berries.
What are juniper berries?
are not true fruits. Instead, juniper berries are the seeds produced by female juniper plants. Junipers are evergreen coniferous shrubs
and trees that belong to the Cypress family (Cupressaceae
). The Juniperus
genus contains between 50 and 70 recognised species.
All of these juniper varieties produce berries, although not all are edible. Some juniper species produce toxic berries. Juniperus communis
– the common juniper – is the most common variety that produces berries. Here are the main juniper species with edible berries:
Most species in the Juniperus
genus are dioecious, which means that plants are either male or female. The female junipers produce the berries, which are actually a type of seed. Juniper berries look like fruits because their flesh is comprised of scales fused together.
Juniper berries are fairly small, typically measuring between four and 12 millimetres wide. Juniper berries can take approximately 18 months to fully ripen. Young berries are green, turning to a dark purple or black colour as they mature.
As the berry matures, the fleshy scales envelop the seed held within, protecting it. This helps the berries spread. When animals such as birds eat the berries, the seeds can survive in the digestive tract thanks to their protective scales. The seeds are then deposited in the animal’s dung, eventually growing into a new juniper plant.
What are the benefits of juniper berries?
Juniper berries have been harvested for various uses for thousands of years. The ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome all used juniper berries for medicinal or nutritional purposes. So it’s no surprise that juniper berries can offer a range of benefits
. Here are the main ones:
- Antibacterial and antifungal properties – Juniper berries contain several essential oils that are both antibacterial and antifungal. Some studies have found that these oils can combat 16 different types of bacteria and fungus conditions.
- Anti-diabetic – In the traditional medicine of many cultures, juniper berries were used to treat diabetes. Modern research suggests that the high antioxidant levels in juniper berries can improve good cholesterol levels and greatly reduce blood sugar levels.
- Anti-inflammatory – The essential oils and antioxidants present in juniper berries can have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Good for the heart – Juniper berries have been shown to both raise good cholesterol levels and lower bad cholesterol levels, which helps stimulate better heart health.
- High in nutrients – Like many other berries, juniper berries contain high amounts of vitamin C. Juniper berries can also contain antioxidants and beneficial oils.
What are the uses of juniper berries?
Juniper berries can be used both in medicine and in cooking. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used juniper berries as part of traditional medicinal practices for thousands of years. In modern times, juniper berries are more famous for their culinary uses.
Juniper berries are the main flavouring for gin, which was created in the Netherlands during the 17th
Century. Juniper berries have a tart taste that carries notes of pine. The berries are used as a botanical spice to flavour gin. This spirit even gets its name from juniper berries, as the Dutch word for gin is jenever
, which means “juniper”.
Another culinary use for juniper berries is as a flavouring for meat dishes. Many Scandinavian culinary traditions use juniper berries to add a tart flavour to pork and poultry. Game meats like boar and venison are also seasoned with juniper berries, as are game birds such as pheasants and thrushes.
Many Native American societies picked juniper berries for a variety of uses. Not only were the berries used to season other foods, but also as a nutritious food in their own right. The seeds contained within the juniper berries were sometimes used as beads for necklaces and other jewellery or instruments.
Aromatic essential oils can also be distilled from juniper berries. These are then used in aromatherapy or to create the scents used in cologne or perfumes.
History of juniper berries
genus is hundreds of thousands of years old and is one of the most widespread plants in the Northern Hemisphere. Juniper berries have been a nutritious food for wild animals and birds for centuries, long before humans started using these berries.
Juniper berries were used as medicines in various ancient civilisations including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Native American tribes also used juniper berries for both medicine and food. Many northern European and Scandinavian cultures have used juniper berries as a flavouring or spice for centuries.
During the 17th
Century, juniper berries were used to develop gin in the Netherlands. This has since become the most common use for juniper berries, especially those of the common juniper (Juniperus communis
Are juniper berries edible?
The juniper berries produced by some species, such as the common juniper, are edible. However, a few juniper species, such as the Savin juniper (Juniperus sabina
) are completely toxic.
Do juniper berries have health benefits?
Juniper berries have a range of health benefits
. These berries have anti-diabetic, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties and contain lots of vitamin C and other antioxidants.
What can you make out of juniper berries?
Juniper berries are most frequently used as the flavouring for gin. Juniper berries can infuse this alcoholic spirit with a tart, pine-like taste.
Can you eat raw juniper berries?
Juniper berries produced from edible varieties such as the common juniper can be eaten raw. However, some of these can have an unpleasantly bitter or tart taste. Eating large quantities isn’t advisable because this can have adverse side effects.
What do juniper berries taste like?
Most juniper berries have a sharp taste with a pine-like flavour. Different species will have slightly different flavours – some have a slightly fruity or peppery taste.
Are juniper berries toxic?
Although several species of juniper produce edible berries, some juniper berries from certain varieties are toxic. The main one of these is Juniperus sabina
Juniper berries are surprisingly versatile. Although not technically berries, these fleshy seeds have medicinal purposes and a range of health benefits. Juniper berries can also be used in cooking to flavour meats such as boar, venison, and game birds. The most well-known use of juniper berries is as the flavouring for gin.