- Pick and Dry Your Own Juniper Berries for Wild Game Cooking
- Juniper Berry Harvest Tips: How To Pick Juniper Berries
- Is it Safe to Pick Juniper Berries?
- When to Harvest Juniper Berries
- How to Pick Juniper Berries
- How to Harvest Juniper Berries for Dry Curing
- Juniper Berries: How To Find, Harvest, and Use Them
- Herb to Know: Juniper
Pick and Dry Your Own Juniper Berries for Wild Game Cooking
Have you ever noticed juniper berries in a recipe and wondered what they tasted like? Or maybe you searched for them at your local spice shop and got a mild shock when you saw the price? If you live in an area with Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana), or one of the other 12 native junipers in the United States (most everyone), then you can collect your own. And they taste even better than the juniper berries you will find in a store.
Juniper berries aren’t really berries at all, but are tiny cones with scales so small and packed so tightly that its hard to see them with the naked eye. The berries grow over a three-year cycle, going from very small, to slightly larger green, to light blue and then dark blue when fully mature. In any given area, different trees will be at different stages from year to year, so there should be a few around with ripe berries each fall. Pick the berries by hand, trying to get as few of the cedar needles as possible. Rinse the berries under clean water to wash away any small insects that might be hanging on.
The berries can be eaten dried, fresh, chopped or powdered to impart a sharp, peppery flavor to balance the richness of game meats, soups and stews. Leave the berries whole until ready for use, the grind or pound and sprinkle on as seasoning.
Eastern red cedar berries and other non-toxic junipers have been used in a number of ways. Native Americans often added juniper berries to food dishes and grains like flour for a hint of flavor. They often cooked venison and other meat with Juniper berries as a spice. They were prepared different ways by different tribes but some of the preparation methods include drying, soaking, mashing or just eating them raw. Juniper berries and young twigs were also made into a medicinal tea by Native American Tribes.
Here in Kentucky, we start picking the berries in early fall, when they first start to take on a bluish tint. We continue to pick as the berries darken as winter approaches. The green berries have a fresh, almost citrus flavor. As they mature, the flavor gets sharper and takes on more of a peppery note.
You can use the berries fresh or dry them for long-term storage. Fresh or dried, the flavor is always strongest just after the berries have been crushed. Because of that, I leave them whole until right before use, crushing only the amount I need in a mortar and pestle.
You can allow the berries to dry on their own or speed the process by placing them in a dehydrator overnight. I place a sheet of parchment paper on the dehydrator rack to keep the berries from falling through the openings. Store your dried juniper berries in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.
Use your dried berries to directly season meats, or as a flavoring for sauces and marinades.
It is worth noting that overconsumption of eastern red cedar berries can be mildly toxic, but one would have to consume massive quantities to be at risk. It is also advised that pregnant women avoid juniper berries.
As with all foraged wild food, be certain of plant species. While all native species of juniper are safe to harvest from, some imported species can be toxic. If you aren’t sure, check with an experienced forager or biologist in your area.
Green-fingered gin aficionados are being encouraged to grow their own gin at home.
A campaign set up by Portobello Road Gin aims to support the conservation efforts for the native UK plant which has been in sharp decline since 2004, according to research by woodland conservation charity Plantlife.
Tom Coates, Portobello Road Gin’s brand director, said: ‘Juniper is a hardy plant, however, the British contingent has taken somewhat of a beating in recent years, encountering a number of problems including disease and fragmented populations.
Merethe Svarstad Eeg / EyeEmGetty Images
‘We want to help get the foundation of the nation’s favourite spirit back on track and while most brands – including Portobello Road Gin – do not use British juniper in their spirit, as passionate gin-educators, safeguarding our nation’s beloved juniper plant is very important to us. We believe that thanks to a rise in appreciation of craftsmanship and conservation, this is something that our customers will get behind as well.’
Common juniper is an evergreen conifer with small needle-like leaves. It is also dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Once pollinated by wind, the green female flowers develop into fleshy, purple, aromatic, berry-like cones.
Alice Vincent, millennial gardener and author of How To Grow Stuff, has provided some expert tips on how to best grow your bush at home. And the good news is that you can grow a flourishing juniper bush from sapling to shrub whatever your space – whether that’s in a garden, allotment or concrete jungle. Once planted, each bush requires little pruning and could live up to 170 years.
Chad LattaGetty Images
Follow Alice’s top tips below:
1. Make sure the soil is well-draining to ensure your juniper grows well in a wide range of temperatures. Junipers are really hardy and great for beginners so once you’ve planted it there’s not much TLC required.
2. The juniper sapling is a plug plant, which means it comes ready to go in compost. You can plant it all year round.
3. You can grow junipers in a large plant pot or in your garden. Make sure the area is free of weeds and other plants.
4. Dig a hole about double the size of the rootball and surrounding compost, and gently tease out the roots.
5. Pop the rootball into the hole and gently pat the soil around it. Give it a good drink of water.
6. For the first two weeks, water your juniper two to three times a week. Then let it be – if it gets too wet, it won’t be happy!
7. Little further cultivation should be required. Wait for the plant to start producing the wonderful juniper berry!
Portobello Road Gin
‘As modern life gets ever faster our desire to slow down, escape our screens and reconnect with nature just gets stronger. Growing stuff is a great way to switch off and get outdoors, and juniper is an easy, tolerant plant to inspire green fingers,’ said Alice. ‘Whether you’ve been gardening for a while or are a complete beginner, we’re calling for gin fans to get out in the garden and to help preserve the future of our nation’s favourite tipple!’
Portobello Road Gin
• Each gin lover that purchases a 75cl limited edition of Portobello Road Gin’s ‘Grow Your Own Juniper’ bottle (£25, exclusively at Waitrose stores nationwide) will be sent a complimentary juniper sapling to grow at home. Growers then have the chance to send their cultivated juniper berries to Portobello Road Gin’s Distillery where they will be distilled into bespoke gins for them.
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The Japanese say that walking in an evergreen forest and “taking in the atmosphere” (shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing trip”) is therapeutic for the health and the spirit. If that’s true, then surely hanging around for hours foraging juniper berries is good for the soul. Whenever I’m foraging among the junipers I like to breathe in deeply. The aroma is a mix of the forest and the earth, rich and balsamic, like a shot of a winter holiday elixir.
There are some 60 species of juniper found around the world, growing in different ways: some as shrubs, low and sprawling; some more upright as trees. In North America, there are 13 indigenous species that grow wild, and more that are commercially cultivated varieties, not all of which are edible. If you look closely at a juniper branch, you’ll find that they all have tiny scale-like needles. On younger trees, the needles can be sharp and prickly.
Juniper berries are not real berries. They’re cones with scales so miniature and packed down that you can’t even see the scales — instead, they appear as round berries. Only the female tree makes the berries, while the male just has little brown cones.
Juniper berries are most famously known as the flavoring in gin, and in fact the word gin comes from the French genievre, or juniper. flavoring can be very strong and have a slightly turpentine-like finish.
Juniper berries found in the grocery store and in gin are those of the common juniper, which grows as a low sprawling shrub and can be found in many parts of North America as well as Europe. However, it is not so “common” in the mid-Atlantic and other regions, as it favors cliff edges and rocky soils.
The juniper that is grows most often in the wild in central and eastern North America is called (somewhat confusingly) eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). It is one of the first trees that you can see pioneering in old fields and hedgerows. The Comanche and the Lakota American Indians used the berries of the eastern red cedar, eating them whole and also crushed as a spice for soups, meats, and stews. The berry is much smaller than that of the common juniper. It’s also sweeter and less harsh, without those “turpentine” gin notes.
This summer, we enjoyed the underripe green berries, and now they have ripened into a blue-black hue with a slight white dusting wrapper. We pick them now when they are still firm, since later in the winter they may start to crumble and lose their peak quality. This year is a gold mine for juniper berries so those in the know are stashing away lots of them. Who knows whether next year will be as good? Last year, I could barely find a tree with any berries to speak of.
The berries can be eaten dried, fresh, chopped, or powdered to impart a sharp, peppery flavor to balance the richness of winter game, meats, soups, and stews. Right before using the berries, you can also grind and sprinkle them on meats as a seasoning, or make a juniper sugar for blueberry scones (add extra juniper spice if you’re using foraged eastern red cedar berries, as their flavor is more subtle). Or try chocolate sables with juniper sugar for a treat that’s not too sweet and more on the order of a European-style biscuit cookie.
Juniper berries are also a traditional ingredient in making German sauerkraut and they pickle well on their own. On the savory side, the Wong family’s favorite is wintertime cauliflower soup with wild juniper. The pepperiness of the juniper balances the creaminess of the cauliflower exquisitely.
Note: Fresh juniper can have strong antiviral and other medicinal properties. If you are pregnant or under medications consult your physician before consuming.
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Juniper Berry Harvest Tips: How To Pick Juniper Berries
Junipers are common in many parts of the world. There are about 40 species of juniper, most of which produce toxic berries. But for the educated eye, Juniperus communis, has edible, pleasantly pungent berries that can be used as a flavoring, incense, medicinal or part of a cosmetic preparation. Continue reading for tips on how to pick juniper berries and how to recognize the safe juniper plants.
Is it Safe to Pick Juniper Berries?
Those blue berries coated with a white powder are the source of the flavoring in gin. You don’t have to be a gin lover to want to learn when to harvest juniper berries. Is it safe to pick juniper berries? Make sure you can recognize the bush that is the source of the safe seasoning or some very unpleasant experiences may await from harvesting juniper berries off the wrong plant.
The common juniper is hardy in USDA zones 2 to 6 and is found in a wide variety of soils. The plants grow in Asia,
Europe and North America. Recognizing this species can be difficult because it grows in a wide variety of forms. It may be a low, spreading shrub or a tall tree up to 25 feet (7.6 m.) in height.
Common juniper is an evergreen conifer with blue-green awl-shaped needles. The berries are actually cones and are bitter when unripe but have a pleasant taste when fully mature.
When to Harvest Juniper Berries
Juniper berries ripen during 2 to 3 years. The first year produces flowers, the second a hard green berry, and by the third they are ripening to a deep blue. Pick berries in the fall once the plant has numerous blue berries.
There will be berries in all stages of ripening, but the green ones are not very aromatic and taste bitter. You will have to fight the birds for ripe cones during juniper berry harvest time. If the plant is located on your property, cover it with bird netting to protect those precious cones from greedy birds.
How to Pick Juniper Berries
Harvesting juniper berries can be a slightly painful experience because their leaves are very sharp. Some people even develop a bit of a rash, so make sure you have long sleeves and pants, as well as gloves for your juniper berry harvest.
There are two ways to go about harvesting. The first is to simply pick ripe cones from the tree by hand. As they are rather tiny, this can either be tedious or a nice way to spend a fall afternoon. If the prospect of the former seems likely, a quicker way to harvest can be easily done.
Set a tarp under the plant and then shake it vigorously. Ripe and unripe berries will rain down onto the tarp. Then you just need to separate the purplish blue ones and leave the rest to grow more plants naturally or to compost into the soil.
If you’ve ever tasted gin, you know what juniper berries taste like. The flavor is sometimes described as citrusy and evergreen, sometimes as reminiscent of rosemary. Juniper fruit has both bitter and sweet overtones. It’s complex, and useful for flavoring much more than gin.
Technically, juniper berries are cones, but they’re soft, fleshy cones, rather than the more familiar, hard, spiky cones. Since this isn’t a botany class, I’m going to call them berries for the sake of conversation.
The fruit of common juniper (Juniperus communis) is generally considered to be the most flavorful juniper berry, but J. virginiana (eastern red cedar) also produces tasty, edible berries. These are the two most common species in the U.S.
Juniper fruit takes about two years to ripen, so it’s not unusual to find both green (unripe) and purple/blue (ripe) fruit on the tree at the same time. And while a ripe fruit makes an excellent trail nibble, an unripe fruit is intensely bitter and unpleasant. I use them in making cocktail bitters, but not for eating out of hand.
You can buy dried juniper berries in the spice section of a good market, but it’s so easy to harvest your own, you’d be crazy not to give it a try. Plus, who knows how long those store-bought berries have been sitting on the shelf? When you forage for your own juniper, you’ll know exactly how fresh and flavorful they are.
The flavor of fresh juniper fruit is juicy and complex; I pick them as a trail nibble when I’m hiking. Dried berries aren’t juicy, but they are spicy and enticing. Fresh or dry, juniper berries have a strong flavor, so use them in moderation. Just a few berries, coarsely ground in a mortar with a pestle, are enough to flavor an entire batch of sauerkraut.
I’m often asked if juniper berries are safe to eat, and there’s some controversy about this subject. If eaten in huge quantities over an extended period of time, juniper berries may be toxic. But don’t let this alarm you unnecessarily.
The same can be said of other common cooking spices. For example, consuming large quantities of cassia cinnamon gives you too much coumarin, which may harm your liver and kidneys. But no one warns you not to bake with cinnamon. Because the amount we use in baking is generally safe. In the same way, using most juniper berries as a flavoring in dry rubs and marinades is perfectly safe, unless you have a specific allergy.
There is one juniper (Juniperus sabina) that may be dangerous when eaten, but scientific literature on the subject is frustratingly incomplete. Studies have been made of both the bark and essential oil of J. sabina. The amount of essential oil estimated as harmful to humans is approximately one gram. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take body weight into account and that is clearly relevant. One gram of a chemical constituent is going to have a different effect on a 200 pound man than it will on a 70 pound child. But even if we accept the one gram figure, this is considerably more essential oil than you would get in a few berries. And humans aren’t grazing on juniper bark the way livestock is.
An FDA abstract says that the fruit of J. sabina has high concentrations of several potentially dangerous phytochemicals, but is inconclusive. Here’s how it ends: “The quantity of toxic ingredients, sabinene and sabinol, in gin were unknown. Neither was anything known concerning their toxicity to man. In fact, no formal studies had ever been carried out on the chronic toxicity of these materials.”
J. sabina isn’t native to this country (although it may be sold as an ornamental), so in the United States you’re more likely to come across safe junipers like J. virginiana and J. communis if you’re foraging in the wild. I feel completely safe using the fruit of both of these plants in moderation. You, dear reader, will have to decide for yourself what you feel comfortable with. I hope you’ll taste a fruit before you decide.
How to Harvest Juniper Berries for Dry Curing
The common juniper, Juniperus communis, is the most widespread coniferous plant in the world. This evergreen member of the cypress family probably grows wild in the woods right behind your home. Junipers have a three-year fruiting cycle. They produce flowers the first year, and green berries appear the next. The berries ripen and turn blue from September to October of their third year. So each mature plant will have some combination of green and blue berries in any given year. While juniper berries are free for the taking, they don‘t come without a price. Wear sturdy gloves and protective clothing when you pick the fruits because the leaves are heavily armed with sharp, stiff spines.
Watch your chosen juniper plants for ripening berries beginning near the end of summer. You’ll want to harvest plants with as many ripe blue fruits as possible. Green berries aren’t suitable for dry curing.
Tie each end of a short piece of rope to the handle of a small plastic pail. Place the rope around the back of your neck. This will free up both of your hands for handling juniper berries, and it’s a handy little device for carrying them.
Spread an old sheet around the base of the juniper bush. Grasp a branch with a gloved hand and shake it. The ripest blue berries will drop easily from the limb onto the sheet.
Pluck remaining ripe berries from the plant by hand.
Lay an old sheet out in a shady spot in the yard and dump the berries onto it. Spread them out and leave them for a couple of hours. Insects that you may have inadvertently collected will fly or scurry away. Inspect the berries and discard any brown, green or damaged fruits. Take the remainder indoors for cleaning and processing.
Juniper Berries: How To Find, Harvest, and Use Them
Here in Ohio, we still haven’t had a frost so I’m still bringing in the harvest. This week, I’m ready to collect juniper berries.
Our juniper shrub has played an important part in our farm since the very beginning. It was much smaller when we moved in, but nonetheless, was the best shelter on the property for our very first bee hives. The mockingbird, for which we named our farm, nested in the juniper just above the hives that first year and we took it as a good sign.
Where to Find Juniper Berries
Junipers grow in most parts of North America. They aren’t too picky about the soils in which they grow, with the exception of their dislike for an extremely wet one. Because they can tolerate extremely dry conditions, you may have met a juniper even if you live in the city. They are often planted near sidewalks and streets. They don’t need much in the way of maintenance, so no need for a grounds crew to keep them trimmed. Even the berries, which are small and abundant, lure the birds to come and fetch them instead of gracelessly cluttering the yard.
Using Juniper Berries
Juniper berries have a long tradition of use in food, beverages, and medicine. I wrote some weeks ago about the fact that they are the main flavor in gin. In Norway, where my family originates, it is common to home brew with juniper berry tea. You’ll find recipes that include juniper berries with meat, especially fish. Just a few are used, and they are usually crushed to release their flavor. It is said that they make a domestic meat taste like their wild counterparts.
In medicine, juniper berries are recognized for both their high content of volatile oils and their beneficial resins. It its common to see them applied to issues in the respiratory tract and urinary tract. Therefore they can be useful for such issues as cold, congestion, cough, urinary tract infections, arthritis, and gout. They are fairly intense in their action, so only small amounts are used.
NOTE: Juniper berries aren’t a tonic by any means, so the use of them over long periods of time isn’t advisable. The use of the berries for anyone with only one kidney, or someone with kidney disease, is not advised.
Harvesting Juniper Berries
Our juniper bush towers over us these days. It has grown from a modest six feet to easily 11 feet over the past 15 years. I won’t bother picking any of the berries above my head. In that way, I can leave some of the berries for the birds. Juniper leaves are sharp, so it’s best to use gloves when picking juniper berries.
The time-honored way to pick is much like mulberry picking. Place a sheet underneath the shrub, grasp a branch with berries, and gently shake. The berries will fall off quite easily. You are looking for only the blue, ripe berries. Anything green will rot before it dries.
Drying Juniper Berries
After gathering the berries, it is time to dry them. It has turned rather chilly and humid here, so I’ll most likely use the dehydrator. It takes quite a while to fully dry a juniper berry because it is highly resinous. You can expect to allow them to air dry for up to three weeks or at least two days in the dehydrator.
Using Dried Juniper Berries
This winter, I’m looking forward to experimenting with some juniper rubs for outdoor barbecue. If I decide to use the berries for medicine, they can be tinctured, powdered, or made into tea.
Want juniper berries, but don’t have time for a DIY?
You can find organic dried juniper berries here for a reasonable price.
Have you noticed a juniper shrub in your area, covered in blue berries? Have I inspired you to take a closer look?
Herb to Know: Juniper
Relatively safer ways to use juniper include soaking in a tub of warm water to which you have added a few aromatic sprigs (watch the prickles) or simmering berries in olive oil and then rubbing the cooled oil on sore limbs.
Other Uses For Juniper
The best-known nonmedicinal use of juniper berries is probably as flavoring for the Dutch invention, gin (the name comes from the Dutch word jenever, “juniper”). The dried berries and oil have also been used in liqueurs and cordials as well as in French and Swedish beers. The berries have served as a pepper substitute and, roasted, as a coffee substitute. They add piquancy to meats, especially game, sauerkraut, and stuffings. Crush three or four berries to simmer in chowder or steep in an herb vinegar, but remove them before serving. Juniper berry tea is spicy with a flavor reminiscent of gin, but it’s also diuretic.
Maud Grieve, in A Modern Herbal (1931), notes that juniper is “readily eaten by most animals, especially sheep, and is said to prevent and cure dropsy in the latter.” Oil of juniper mixed with lard was at one time applied to wounds of animals to keep off flies.
The early European settlers in America spread their sheets on juniper bushes to dry. The fibrous bark has been made into rope. The branches may be used for wreaths.
Juniper In The Landscape
Common juniper is hardy to USDA Zone 2 but may not do well in the Deep South. It withstands drought and wind, and it grows in all kinds of poor soils. Its extensive root system is well equipped to hold soil on slopes. Low kinds are good for ground cover in sandy soils and waste places, taller ones for hedges and windbreaks. Those with drooping branch tips may take root and form new plants, eventually growing into an impenetrable thicket—nice for a wildlife preserve but less appealing for a small backyard.
The foliage of common juniper has an unfortunate tendency to brown in winter. Other juniper species such as J. chinensis, horizontalis, or virginiana may be better choices for good winter color. The numerous cultivars of J. communis include dwarf, upright, spreading, conical, vase-shaped, pyramidal, and columnar forms with green or yellow foliage, one or more of which is probably suitable for your landscape. J. communis ‘Berkshire’ makes a flat mound 1 foot high, ‘Compressa’ is a 3-foot-tall narrow columnar spire, and ‘Repanda’ is a prostrate cultivar that holds its color in winter better than most.
Common juniper can be grown from seeds, although they may take two to three years to germinate. To speed germination, try dipping the berries briefly in boiling water. Giving the planted seeds moist warmth for sixty to ninety days followed by ninety days of moist chilling is said to promote germination within twenty to thirty days.
Grow plants in full sun. Seedlings transplant readily. Plant several to increase the likelihood of having both male and female plants, which you’ll need for the production of berries.
You can harvest berries all winter, but remember to wear gloves and work from below the branches to avoid being pricked by the needles. Pick only the mature (blue or black) berries, dry them slowly indoors, and store them in a tightly closed container.