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juniper berries

Juniper Berries (Juniperus Communis)

Unusual Edibles

If you’re enjoying the current gin renaissance you’ll no doubt recognise the flavour of juniper berries from your favourite brand of mother’s ruin. While each gin distiller makes use of their own special blend of aromatics and botanicals to create a distinctive flavour profile, juniper berries are the one ingredient that is necessary for gin to be gin.

Interestingly, juniper berries aren’t berries at all, but actually the female cones of the common juniper (Juniperus Communis). The common juniper is a small coniferous plant that varies in form from prostrate, sprawling shrubs through to small trees of up to 10m high with a potential spread of about 4m. These variations arise from the vastness of the plant’s natural range, which extends throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, from North America through to Asia.

The plant is evergreen, the needle-like leaves growing in whorls of three. It is also dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate plants, which is worth noting if you intend on growing your own. They are wind pollinated, the female plants producing fleshy, purple, aromatic, berry-like cones.

picked juniper berries

Gin was first used as a herbal tonic, apparently originating in the Netherlands in the 17th century and used to treat ailments like kidney problems, lumbago, stomach maladies, gallstones, and gout. It was later, towards the end of the 17th century, that it became popular as an alcoholic beverage, most notably in London where it was untaxed and therefore cheaper to drink than beer, and safer than the local water!

The classic G&T emerged in India, where British army officers found that it made the tonic water they were encouraged to drink to ward off malaria more palatable.

While juniper berries were the defining flavour (‘gin’ is actually derived from the French word for ‘juniper’), spices such as anise, caraway and coriander were other common additives, and everything from fynbos to orange peel is used these days.

Gin and juniper are intrinsically linked, but the berries can also be used to add an interesting flavour to sauces and other dishes.

Growing tips

  1. Junipers are tough and hardy plants, putting up with heavy frosts as well as drought, and even an exposed position. They prefer full sun conditions but can also put up with semi-shade. They’ll grow in most soil types, on condition that the soil is well drained, and are also a good container plant as well as beautiful bonsai specimen.
  1. Water the plants for a few weeks until they are established, but after that leave them be under normal conditions as they don’t like to be too wet. Trees grow slowly, but can live to be a few hundred years old.
  1. Seeds of the common juniper are sometimes available, usually from specialist bonsai growers or specialist seed sellers such as Seeds for Africa, while the berries are becoming more readily available for cooking.
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