Juniper bushes are best known as those prickly evergreens that jab through the toughest layers of your clothing to cause you misery, while perfuming you with every poke, but did you know you can cook with them?
When I first moved to central Montana, I made it my mission to learn all I could about wild edibles, which is when I discovered that these fragrant blue berries are not only great for a holiday simmer pot, but pretty darned good over some roasted pheasant, too.
What Are Juniper Berries?
Technically, juniper berries aren’t really berries at all, and are more like pine cones. However, they’re so smooth and juicy, they feel like berries, so most people don’t think of them as the seeds of conifers.
Juniper berries are tiny, only about a quarter of an inch in diameter, and range from a white powdery blue to a dark, rich sapphire color. They’re found on juniper plants of every variety, from the creeping bushes to the trees.
In taste, juniper berries have a menthol quality to them, taking on the fresh pine-y scent of the plants in a sharp, peppery way that tends to open up your nasal passages when you bite into one.
Where to Find Juniper Berries
Juniper bushes and trees can be found growing wild in a wide range of landscapes in parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. Favoring cliffs and rocky landscapes, juniper bushes and trees can be found in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and in similarly arid and rocky regions throughout the country.
If the terrain is rocky and unforgiving, look around — there’s bound to be a juniper plant nearby. They’re also allopathic, meaning that other plants have a hard time growing around them because of their chemical qualities, so you might find little else grows in the immediate vicinity of a juniper bush.
Juniper Berry Toxicity
As much as I love these fragrant little blue gems, it’s important to note that juniper berries are a spice, and too much of a spice can be very similar to taking too much medicine. As such, you’ll only want to use juniper berries to season foods or make teas, not serve them up as an appetizer (and if your taste buds can handle THAT, I’ll be seriously impressed).
Juniper berries are classified as ‘likely safe’, which essentially means that as long as you’re a healthy person without a ton of food allergies, you should be a-okay to eat them in small quantities.
That being said, if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to become pregnant, it’s important to avoid juniper berries. As with many allopathic plants, juniper berries might interfere with breastfeeding and pregnancy. Consult your doctor if you have any questions.
Juniper Berry Natural Medicine Benefits
Aside from being fragrant and pretty delicious in a white wine sauce, juniper berries have also been used for thousands of years as a natural medicine for a variety of ailments.
Thanks to its natural anti inflammatory and antibacterial properties, juniper berry is an effective and easy to make natural remedy for everything from indigestion to fungal infections. It’s also an effective pain reliever, and makes a great addition to muscle salves and wound creams.
How to Wild Forage for Juniper Berries
Juniper berries have an interesting ripening cycle that, once you know what to look for, makes it easy to spot the ones that are ripe for the pickin’.
When they’re just getting started, these berries will be very firm and pale green, then gradually turn to a pale blue. When ready for harvest, they’re a deep, purple blue color, with a powdery dusting on the outside of the berry. Typically, berries are ripe between 18 and 24 months of age.
Young juniper plants can be particularly sharp, so be sure to wear some tough leather gloves when you go out to gather them. They’re also very tiny, so I don’t recommend collecting them in anything but a very finely woven basket or a canvas bag.
Start your search for juniper berries in rocky spaces — on mountainsides, rocky outcroppings, and alongside old logging roads. As you harvest them, take care to only select areas that you know haven’t been sprayed with pesticides.
When you get home with your haul, rinse them off really well under some fresh cool water, and shake them dry in a dish towel with the ends pulled together like a bag. If you intend to use them fresh, store them in your refrigerator in an airtight container with a paper towel on the bottom.
If you intend to dry them, make sure you have a dehydrator with a fine enough screen that they won’t fall through, and place them in a warm place to get them done in a day or two. Their smell may diminish once dry, but if you crack them open, you’ll get a deep whiff of that invigorating scent.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out these juniper berry recipes for festive holiday cooking.