The warmly aromatic and resinous scent of the juniper berry (Juniperus communis, Family: Cupressaceae) is like the fragrance of a pine woods. A teaspoon of the blue-black berries steeping in a pot of simmering water for a cup of tea will fill the kitchen with the aroma of the great outdoors. The berries are borne on the common juniper, which grows widely throughout the northern hemisphere. In fact, it is the most widespread conifer in the world. It may be a shrub four to six feet high or a tree of forty feet.

The berries, which ripen in their second or third year, contain a cordial oil, an alkaloid called juniperin, resins, sugar, fat, formic and acetic acids, and malates. They are used commercially to flavor gins, liqueurs, beer, and bitters. They are used in the kitchen to season sauerkraut, game, beans, pickles, sauces, and marinades. Generally, three to five berries are allowed per serving. If harvesting your own, gather the ripe blue berries and spread them on a clean surface to dry slowly in a cool, dry place; in the process they’ll turn their characteristic purple-black.

In olden days the juniper was known as the “tree of sanctuary.” Legend has it that the Holy Family found shelter and protection from Herod in the juniper’s thick-growing branches, and they protect small game today. Still another old tale deals with witches and their obsession with the exact number of needles on a tree. They counted and counted but always lost track and had to start over. Finally, giving up, they would leave the home or garden where the juniper grew and it would be free of their spell. So it came to be accepted that a juniper tree planted at a door protected a home against witches. A juniper planted in a garden countered the effect of a tree, such as the alder or larch, liked by witches.

Reprinted from Lore and Legend of the Culinary Herbs and Spices, Second Edition © St Louis Herb Society 2014

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