Juniper by J. Zane Walley

The Apache used the Juniper tree as medication, as did the Navajo, Paiute, Shoshone, Tewa and Zuni tribes. The Carrier Indians of north central British Columbia used Juniper to treat the same diseases, as did Vikings in the frigid spruce forests of northern Europe.

One gauge of a plant’s effectiveness and safety is common folk use. Native peoples have been testing plants on humans for thousands of years. If the same plant has been used by several different cultures to treat related diseases, then it is almost certain that the plant is practical to use in those cases. Junipers, common to large parts of the world, have such a history of far-reaching folk use, and even of pleasure.

Juniper is perhaps best known for use as the flavoring in gin. The Old Dutch held drinking gin was a restorative because of the juniper content. So regular was medical swigging of high-proof juniper that the Dutch word, Geniver, root word of gin, means "juniper." The Swedes thought likewise, they make a juniper beer that is tippled as a healthy drink.

Juniper berries can also be used as an excellent flavoring. Choucroute is a French recipe of sauerkraut with wine, sausages, port, and juniper berries. I have tried this dish and it is delicious. (Use ten ripe berries per pound of ingredients.) The berries also work wonders as a spice for venison, wild boar, and elk. Last year, I shot a wild turkey near Langtry, Texas. From the looks of its craw, it had been living on a diet of the berries. The meat was infused with juniper flavor. I baked it in a wood stove oven and served it to my hunting partners with prickly pear pads (nopalitos) sautéed in fat from the turkey, and rich wine. I’ve been camp cook ever since.

Our Native Americans weren’t quite so fancy in ingesting juniper, but they used it for a variety of ailments. The tribes collectively used it to prevent or relieve convulsions, cold and cough medicine, painkiller, to induce perspiration to reduce fevers, to cause vomiting, as a disinfectant and to promote urination. The Tewas used ripe berries placed against a bad tooth to relieve pain and infection.

Any plant with a folk medicine history gets the full attention of pharmaceutical microbiologists, so juniper has been subjected to much research. It bears out claims made by herbalists; and several new uses have been investigated. It is a long way from the laboratory test tube to the pharmacy, but juniper seems to offer cures for many ailments.

Spanish scientists conducted a study showing an extraction of the berries lowers blood sugar in diabetics. They also found juniper strongly antiviral, that is, it destroys and inhibits growth of viruses. Yet another European research team found VII Podophyllotoxin, the active principle of juniper, to be a cancer or tumor inhibitor.

Our local Junipers (J. Communus, J. Sibirica, and J. Montana) are found in the foothills of almost all mountain ranges in the West. Juniper berries take two or three years to ripen, so that blue and green berries occur on the same plant. Only the blue, ripe berries should be picked. When collected, they should be laid out on shelves to dry a little, during which process, they lose some of the blue bloom and develop a blackish color.

Use a tablespoon of crushed berries, steeped in a covered cup of hot water for fifteen minutes and drink one to three cups per day.

THE BREW CAN BE IRRITATING TO KIDNEYS WHEN OVER-CONSUMED. JUNIPER CAUSES UTERINE VASODILATION AND SHOULD NOT BE USED BY PREGNANT WOMEN. IT MAY BE PRESENT IN BREAST MILK AND SHOULD NOT BE USED BY NURSING MOTHERS.