Thousands of years ago, our forefathers knew much about the juniper tree. The psalmist spoke of it as the “house or nesting place of storks” (Psalms 104:17) and its wood was used extensively in the temple built by King Solomon, “the leaves of the main doors were made of juniper wood and the floor was overlaid with it” (1Kings: 6.15,34).
Widely grown in rocky soils throughout the Northern Hemisphere, there are about 60 to 70 species belonging to the Juniper family. All have berries but not all are edible, and it is the berries of the common juniper shrub (Juniperus communis) that were used by the ancient herbalists of Greece and Arabia, as well as the Romans.
Juniper berries are used to flavour foods and alcoholic beverages, particularly gin, whose name is derived from the French “genièvre” or the Dutch “jenever”, meaning “juniper”. With their fragrant, spicy aroma and slightly bittersweet taste, they are often used as a seasoning in sausages and stuffing , in pickling meats, and to flavour liquors and bitters. In some countries, they are even used as a balsamic incense – a handful placed on a warm stove, fills the room to mask strong, lingering cooking odours.
Herbalists use the berries for the following medicinal properties: diuretic (promotes the flow of urine), stomachic (gives strength and tone to the stomach), antiseptic (destroys bacteria), carminative (relieves flatulence).
Juniper is beneficial for the whole urinary system, including the kidney, bladder and urinary passages, as it eliminates excess water by promoting the flow of urine. Its antiseptic properties are known to help in acute and chronic urinary inflammations, such as cystitis and urethritis (inflammation of bladder and urethra), or when there is irritation of the bladder with recurrent attacks of distressing pain and frequent urination, especially in women.
In herbal medicine, Juniper is also recommended in the treatment of digestive problems resulting from an underproduction of hydrochloric acid, to relieve flatulence and abdominal colic, as a stomach medicine to improve digestion, and to alleviate rheumatic aches and pains.
But be careful – Juniper may cause irritation and should not be taken in cases of kidney disease and during pregnancy.