What are juniper berries?

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Juniper Berries

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) with ripe (purple/blue) and unripe (green) berries. This is the one to look for if it grows in your area. (By: Pt GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2)

Season: Spring & Summer

Urban, Rural or Both: Both

Juniper Berries. There are many different trees in the Juniper (Juniperus) family. There are three native Junipers that I know of in the Eastern part of North America, the Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), the Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) and a tree called the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). It is oddly called a Cedar, even though it is not a Cedar, but a Juniper. Very commonly found in nurseries for sale is the Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis) and hybrids of it with other Junipers. Because of this, this one is commonly found in yards in cities. Hybrids of the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and the Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) can be found in Southern Ontario on sandy and rocky sites that get harsh winter winds, such as near lakes.

The “berries” (not really berries technically, but they look like berries – they are really cones) are used as spices and medicine. They are very tiny (about half the diameter of a small pea) and have a blueish “bloom” or dusty surface that wipes off easily when touched.

Caution: Do not use the European Juniperus sabina and Juniperus oxycedrus for food at all. They are sold at nurseries, and the berries are not edible. Also, do not use berries from the commonly sold hybrid known as the Pfitzer Juniper (Juniperus × pfitzeriana). I also strongly suggest not using the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and any of its hybrids, though Native Americans did use this one, there is the possibility the seeds are slightly toxic. I only can recommend three, though there are others that are said to be safe to eat. The three are: Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), the Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) and the Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis). The first choice is the Common Juniper (Juniperus communis).

Juniper berries from the Common Juniper are used to flavor Gin, some beers and are used as the spice for sauces for foods. This is not a berry to make a meal of, just eat a couple at a time or use a few for flavoring sauces. Often you will read they are too strong to eat fresh, I don’t feel that way. I do eat them fresh. My reasons are twofold. One is that I really like the taste of them, and a few eaten on a walk one at a time is really tasty to me. The taste lingers on for a long time after eating them, and I find it very pleasant. It is a fragrant taste – nothing else like it. I have to admit, when I first started eating them, I wasn’t too keen on them. Now I quite like them.

Berries from the Common Juniper are known to reduce inflammation in the body. For a few days after eating them I personally notice a difference, especially with my knees. There is folk remedy for arthritis that is popular now using Gin and Golden Raisins. I’ve tried it, and it does seem to help. Good quality Gin is made with Common Juniper berries, so I tried just eating the Juniper berries instead, and found the effect was the same to better – and a lot cheaper.

Growing this plant in your home garden:

For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Juniper page.

Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).

USDA distribution map and plant profile for all Junipers in North America here.

The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map of all Junipers in North America here. BONAP map color key here.

Common Juniper

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Leaves grow like spiky versions of Yew (Taxus) leaves. Yews, which are very poisonous, have berries that when unripe are green and could be mistaken by someone unfamiliar with both – so if you are in the learning stage, compare the pictures of the Yew in the Yew Berry section with the pictures below of the Juniper.

Juniper Berries are almost perfectly spherical, while unripe Yew Berries have a hollow round hole in the bottom that extends to the seed inside. The foliage of the Juniper is scratchy and prickly feeling, while the Yew is soft to the touch – this is an important identifying feature of Junipers. The Juniper is a dusty blueish in color, while the Yew is a dark green with no dusty look. Once you know the difference, you will never mistake them.

  • Plant Size: Highly variable coniferous evergreen tree or Shrub
  • Duration: Can live hundreds of years
  • Leaf Shape: Needle-like leaves that form in threes
  • Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: whorls of three
  • Leaf Size: 11-15 mm long, 1-1.4 mm wide on average
  • Leaf Margin: Edge of needle like leaves are smooth
  • Leaf Notes: This Juniper has the needle like leaves only, unlike the Juniperus chinensis and the Juniperus virginiana which have the two forms of leaves. The leaves/needles are stiff and have a sharp, hard feel and give a prickly feel when handling the tree or shrub. This is a good identifying feature
  • Flowers: Pollen bearing male cones and female cones that appear as the berries
  • Fruit: Blue berry-like cone often with a whitish blue dusty surface known as a “bloom”. Referred to as a Juniper Berry
  • Bark: New growth green, branches reddish, Mature bark grey often with reddish tone and vertical shredding
  • Habitat: Highly varied habitats, scrubland, conifer forests, fields, rocky areas, can withstand very cold temperatures, tolerant of varied soil alkalinity

  • Pictures of the Common Juniper on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
  • Pictures of the berries on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
  • USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
  • The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) range. Distribution map courtesy of the USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center, originally from “Atlas of United States Trees” by Elbert L. Little, Jr. .

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis). This is a nice example of what a mature Common Juniper would look like. (By: H. Zell GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2)

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis). (By: Chris Cant Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) illustration. I find the work from this 1885 book remarkable in the quality of detail (By: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany)

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) ripe for harvest. These berries (actually they are conifer cones believe it or not) look to be perfect 2nd year ones which have better flavor. (By: MPF GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2)

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) berries (cones) dried and for sale in Italy in a market. (By: Giovanni Dall’Orto)

Creeping Juniper

Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis). Also known as the Creeping Cedar.

  • Plant Size: Up to 30 cm (1 foot) tall, but spreading very wide along the ground
  • Duration: Long lived
  • Leaf Shape: Adult: tiny overlapping scale like leaves. Seedlings: spike shaped leaves
  • Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Opposite pairs or wholes of three
  • Leaf Size: Seedlings: up to 10 mm (inches). Adult: 1-1.5mm to 8 mm on terminal leaf
  • Leaf Notes: Leaves on adult specimens grow like the adult leaves on the Chinese Juniper and Cedar tree leaves. New growth has a blue hue, while older leaves seem more green. There are cultivars that have colors that are not typical of what you would find in the wild – yellowish, green and variegated.
  • Flowers: Male trees have small cones, females trees have the berry like cones
  • Fruit: Small blue (green unripe) berry like cone. Fruit tastes basically the same as the Eastern Red Cedar
  • Bark: Scaly reddish brown
  • Habitat: Northern climates, but cultivars are sold in nurseries all over
  • Pictures of the Creeping Juniper on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
  • Pictures of the berries on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
  • USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
  • The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.

Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) range. Distribution map courtesy of the USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center, originally from “Atlas of United States Trees” by Elbert L. Little, Jr. .

Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis). Good example of one and the type of area you are likely to find it. This one is from Newfoundland, Canada. (By: Wayne Ray)

Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) close. (By: Lazaregagnidze Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Eastern Red Cedar

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Also known as the Red Cedar and the Eastern Red Juniper. If you have spring allergies, this tree may be something you are allergic too. If you know that is the case, or are not sure, don’t touch this tree, as it could leave a skin rash on you. I suggest not eating the berries from this one.

I see this tree most often in gravely, sandy areas that have been left abandoned. Old, unused gravel pits in my area tend to have this tree as one of the earlier succession trees after the grasses and wildflowers. Makes a good windbreak hedge along a country driveway. I’ve included this one here just to know what to avoid.

Growing this plant in your home garden:

Not a good choice, as the leaves can cause allergic skin reactions with some people, and it causes spring allergies for many. Also, the fruit is not recommended to eat.

  • Plant Size: From the size of a Shrub to 27 meters (90 feet) tall
  • Duration: Can live hundreds of years
  • Leaf Shape: Juvenile leaves: needle like. Mature: Very small overlapping scale like leaf
  • Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Opposite pairs (sometimes a whorl of three) with the mature leaves
  • Leaf Size: Juvenile leaves: 5-10 mm long. Mature: each scale like leaf is 2-4 mm long
  • Leaf Notes: Although after the first three years or so, the leaves change from the juvenile to mature type, very often in shaded parts of the inner branches there will still be some juvenile type leaves growing.
  • Fruit: Blue colored berry shaped cone. Edible in small amounts.
  • Bark: Reddish brown, when older with vertical peeling strips, bark has a rope like texture
  • Habitat: Thrives in harsh dry and poor soil areas. Although will grow fine in clay, it seems to show up on its own most often in dry sandy, rocky soils on exposed sites.
  • Pictures of the Eastern Red Cedar on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
  • Pictures of the berries on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
  • USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
  • The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) range. Distribution map courtesy of the USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center, originally from “Atlas of United States Trees” by Elbert L. Little, Jr..

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). This is almost always how I have found this tree. In an open field that is no longer tended and with this shape – a classic candle flame shape. (By: Greg Hume CC BY-SA 3.0)

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) foliage and berries. Compare foliage with the Common Juniper to tell the difference. (By: Keith Kanoti, Maine Forest Service, USA CC BY-SA 3.0)

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Berries can look like this as opposed to how they look above because these have a powdery white bloom on them that can rub off. Also, the ripe fruit can vary in color, and this picture was taken in full light. (By US FWS)

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). This is a good example of where some of the whitish bloom has worn off revealing the true color of the berry underneath. (By: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Herman, D.E., et al. 1996. North Dakota tree handbook. USDA NRCS ND State Soil Conservation Committee; NDSU Extension and Western Area Power Administration, Bismarck.)

Chinese Juniper

Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis). There are many cultivars and hybrids with this one and others, so keep that in mind with the description. If you are going to eat the berries from this one, you must be sure it is not a hybrid with any of the poisonous ones.

  • Plant Size: Shrub to tree that can reach 20 meters (65 feet) tall
  • Duration: Can live for hundreds of years
  • Leaf Shape: Juvenile leaves: needle like. Mature: Very small overlapping scale like leaf
  • Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: On mature leaves, the scales are generally in opposite pairs
  • Leaf Size: Juvenile leaves: 5-10 mm long. Mature: each scale like leaf is 1.5-3 mm long
  • Leaf Notes: Although after the first few years of the tree, the leaves change from the juvenile to mature type, very often in shaded parts of the inner branches there will still be some juvenile type leaves growing.
  • Fruit: Dark blue berry like cone often with whitish blue bloom (dusty coating that wipes off easily)
  • Bark: Fresh growth is green, older branches reddish to almost purple reddish. Mature bark is light weathered grey to reddish with vertical lines and sometimes vertical shredding
  • Habitat: In Eastern North America, will be found as landscape trees in city parks and private yards. Probably naturalized in North America, but I have not found specimens in the wild myself.
  • Pictures of the Chinese on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
  • Pictures of the berries on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).

This is a Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis). This is a typical city landscape use Juniper. The blueish, spherical “berries” look basically the same on the native Common Juniper.

This picture shows a tree with both shapes of leaves on the Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis). The leaves that are close with the berry in the center look like White Cedar leaves with a blue hue. But look on the very left side of the picture half way up. You can see the other kind of leaf that looks like individual “spikes” on a center stem. These spiky leaves are often called juvenile leaves, but persist into older trees in shaded areas of the tree – usually nearer the trunk.

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A tree book like the Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Trees of the Eastern region should help you identify the plant, which may well turn out to be some sort of Eastern red cedar, J. virginiana. This widely distributed native species is probably the most common juniper in Northeastern gardens. It comes in a huge assortment of cultivated forms, and many are good berry-producers.

Although red cedar berries are edible, they are only faintly aromatic. If you want tasty juniper berries and do not have a J. communis, it would be best to plant one.

The wild type yields much better harvests than ornamentals like the columnar and dwarf varieties sold at garden centers. The gorgeous weeper Oblonga Pendula is also quite a gamble, but in this case gambling is worth it. Sources include Lazy S’S Farm and Nursery, lazyssfarm.com (Internet only), and Forestfarm, (541) 846-7269 or forestfarm.com. Both also offer gold forms, which like weepers can be hard to find at walk-in nurseries.

Junipers are not usually identified by sex, but sex is necessary for berries. Choose a plant that already has fruit to ensure eventual harvest. Do not worry about a mate; any male in the species will do, and there is almost surely at least one in your neighborhood.

The berries take two or three years to ripen. They will be blue-black with a whitish bloom, and are most aromatic when fresh. Be warned that birds are very fond of juniper berries, so all this may be theoretical unless you net the plant.

Juniper berry toxicity.

Juniper berries aren’t that irritating to the kidneys.

I’ve taught for years that you can’t use loads of juniper berries, because they irritate the kidneys. I haven’t muttered that caution with juniper for the last few years, though, because I remembered a post about it on a list for herbalists. This one:

I think the rumors of Juniperus spp (juniper) causing kidney problems are greatly exaggerated and based on an even worse insult than the Melissa studies being extrapolated to humans. Read Tisserand’s discussion of it in Essential Oil Safety. The studies suggesting renal problems actually used Juniperus sabina (savin). Look at the existing rat study (yes, they’re rats) in which they practically drowned the poor buggers in Juniperus communis essential oil and guess what — no renal damage whatsoever. Anyhow, I think it is absolutely indicated in renal infections as a combination inflammation modulator and antimicrobial, and I think it’s diuretic effects wouldn’t somehow be so powerful as to damage the kidneys. But I could be wrong. That being said, I’ve never had a patient with pyelonephritis, so I don’t actually know from personal experience what would happen. But I would include Juniperus tincture in their herbal formula, in reasonable doses.
Urologically yours, Eric Yarnell, ND, RH(AHG)
Seattle, WA”

So there you have it. All the fuss is because savine is a juniper, too. It’s toxic, as is its oil:

“Savin is emmenagogue, diuretic, diaphoretic, and anthelmintic. In large doses it will produce gastro-enteritis. Care must be taken in its administration, as it has, in several instances, produced fatal results. It should never be given when there is any general or local inflammation present, and it should never be used during pregnancy,”
(King’s American Dispensatory)

“Oil of savine is a powerful irritant to the mucous tissues, and powerfully deranges the nervous system. It may induce gastro-intestinal inflammation, vesical tenesmus and strangury, congestion of the pelvic organs, fever, mental excitation and intoxication, coma, and death.”
(King’s American Dispensatory)

And “normal” juniper oil (Juniperus communis) isn’t toxic, even in high doses, in rats. Note, a juniper tincture contains almost the same constituents as oil of juniper:

“The nephrotoxicity of juniper oil … was evaluated in … rats after oral administration. Two … slightly different oil batches were tested for 28 days with 100, 333 or 1000 mg … resp. 100, 300 or 900 mg … juniper oil/kg. Additionally terpinene-4-ol … was tested in a dosage of 400 mg/kg. Neither of the tested substances induced changes in function or morphology of the kidneys at the tested doses, and they were revealed to be nontoxic.”
Schilcher H, Leuschner F., The potential nephrotoxic effects of essential juniper oil., Arzneimittelforschung. 1997 Jul;47(7):855-8.

Related entries: Picking juniper berries – Using juniper berries – Juniper salmon

Juniper berries (actually fleshy cones) are a popular wild harvested spice. They are often used to flavour meats and are used to flavour gin. Medicinal usage centres around their aromatic and antimicrobial properties. Juniper berries are useful in treating digestive complaints, respiratory illness, and urinary tract infection.

Savin Juniper, note the ascending growth pattern of the leaves.

In this article I would like to draw your attention towards a commonly planted ornamental species of juniper called Savin Juniper (Juniperus sabina). In the Calgary area it is so popular there is a cultivated variety called “Calgary carpet”. Savin Juniper is known to be toxic and potentially deadly poisonous if taken in large enough quantities. It can be difficult to accurately distinguish between different species of cultivated junipers because they have been bred to have unique features not present in their wild forms. I find the best way to identify Savin Juniper is to observe the ascending growth habit of the branches, however, I don’t recommend consuming any cultivated juniper species that have scale-like leaves unless you are very confident in your identification.
I have met folks who have made juniper syrup using Savin Juniper without realizing the potential toxicity. The only species I recommend people using confidently in Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) because this species is the most easy to identify, the leaves are awl-shaped, or to put more simply more needle-like, and there is long record of safe usage.
The rest of this article is concerned with looking at the history and use of Savin Juniper to get a better picture of how toxic the plant really is, and how likely an accidental poisoning could be.

Common Juniper awl-shaped leaves and berries. Photo credit Ben Hartney.

The title of an article by Papavassiliou published in the French journal Société de Médecine Légale in 1937 indicates that in two cases of poisoning, oil of Savin was able to cross the placental barrier. I could not find any online access to the article, but according to Jacobs and Madari (2004) the toxicity was caused by large doses of the branches being taken orally resulting in abortion and serious poisoning. The oil of Savin (also know as Sabine) was found in the viscera of the foetus demonstrating the ability of the oil to cross the placental barrier.

The essential oil of Common Juniper berries is used in the making of gin. In Spain where Common Juniper and Savin Juniper grow in the same habitat there is a concern for potential contamination of harvested juniper berries with toxic Savin Juniper berries. Casares (1964) writes that any juniper harvest that was believes to be contaminated with Savin Juniper was destroyed. He further writes that Savin oil contains sabinene, sabinyl acetate and sabinol, compounds that are structurally related to thujane, thujol, and thujone. The latter are well known for their toxic effects and are found in infamous plants such as Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). According to Casares, Savin oil can cause irritation of the mucus lining of the intestines, congestion of abdominal organs, congestion of the kidneys leading to haematuria (blood in the urine), menorrhagia (heavy menstrual bleeding) and abortion.

Other studies have looked at the effect of Savin oil on pregnant mice. An essential oil containing 50% sabinyl acetate was injected in mice at doses of 45 and 135 mg/kg. On days 0 to 4 of pregnancy 50% of placental implantation was prevented, but on days 8 to 11 pregnancy was not prevented and the incidence of malformations in the fetuses was not increased relative to control mice (Pages et al., 1996). In a similar study the same doses injected in mice on days 6 to 15 of gestation caused significant toxicity to the mouse embryo but not the mouse fetus (Pages et al., 1989). Animal studies cannot be directly applied to humans, but they can indicate potential toxicity. To put the doses used in these studies in perspective, for a person of 60 kg (132 lbs) the amount of injected essential oil would be 2.7 g and 8.1 g. Such high doses of essential oils, even for essential oils considered safe for human consumption, would never be recommended internally in humans.
Some studies have also looked at the cytotoxic (cell-killing) properties of compounds found in Savin Juniper. Cytotoxic compounds are potential candidates for anti-cancer drugs. Savin Juniper contains a compound called podophyllotoxin, which has been shown to inhibit mitosis through the inhibition of microtubule assembly (Jacobs and Madari, 2004). In simple terms this means that podophyllotoxin prevents cells from dividing. Compounds that prevent cell division are frequently used as chemotherapy drugs to stop cancerous tumours from growing. A study by Shokrzadeh et al. (2010) found that a water and alcohol extract of Savin Juniper berries had cytotoxic effects against some cancer cell lines comparable to extracts from Yew (Taxus baccata). The Yew tree is well known to be a very poisonous plant when ingested. The chemotherapy drug Paclitaxel is derived from Yew. However, it does not follow that plants that contain cytotoxic compounds are poisonous. Common food plants such as coriander (Coriandrum sativum), celery (Apium graveolens) and oregano (Origanum vulgare) have also been shown to have cytotoxic properties (Jacobs and Madari, 2004).

Various reports exist of Savin Juniper being used as a traditional medicine in different cultures. The berries were used internally as a decoction in Bosnia and Herzegovina for venereal disease (Redzic, 2007). In Iran the berries were used as for their antifertility, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties (Jazayeri et al., 2014). In Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan a decoction (boiled tea) of the roots was used for kidney stones (Ahmed et al., 2016). In Uyghur folk medicine in China the leaves and branches were used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. The flavonoid content of Savin Juniper was extracted and orally fed to mice at doses of 124 to 500 mg/kg in a rheumatoid arthritis mouse model. The results showed the flavonoid content was anti-inflammatory (Zhao et al., 2016). Animal models are experiments that attempt to create an imitation of a disease, for example injecting irritating chemicals into a joint creates a model for arthritis. It should also be noted that the flavonoid content would not contain the above-mentioned toxic chemicals.

Historical publications also report various uses of Savin Juniper. An article from La Lancette Française (1843) wrote that a Dr. Pitechaft found from his experience with patients that the leaves of “sabine” could be used to prevent miscarriage and premature labour due to their ability to prevent the excessive filling of uterine blood vessels. The preparation method suggested was 8 g in 100 mL of boiling water followed by adding 30 g of cinnamon syrup. The dose was 1 spoonful every hour for up to 8 days. In some cases 8 g of sage (Salvia officinalis) leaves were added, particularly where there had been excessive sweating. The sage was added to activate the circulation and nervous system. It is interesting to note that sage essential oil contains thujone, mentioned above as being structurally similar to toxic compounds in Savin essential oil. Thujone in large doses can be toxic to the central nervous system.
The King’s American Dispensatory (1898) written by Dr. Harvey Wickes Felter and pharmacist John Uri Lloyd provides an incredible repository of experience-based evidence for plant medicines. Savin Juniper is described as having the ability to induce abortions, but reinforces the publication in La Lancette Française that very small doses may be used to prevent miscarriage. Other uses mentioned are the treatment of worms, ulcers, menstrual irregularities, urinary tract diseases, and venereal warts. They write that great caution should be used in administering Savin Juniper as fatalities have occurred and there is a significant side effect of severe inflammation of the stomach and bowels. The toxicity of the essential oil is described as causing severe gastro-intestinal inflammation, inability to urinate, congestion of the pelvic organs, fever, mental intoxication, coma and death. The recommended dose of essential oil to induce abortion accompanied by severe side effects was 10 to 15 drops (1 drop is roughly equivalent to 0.05 mg) on a cube of sugar three times a day. Various low doses are described for safe internal use of the leaves. For syrup 325 mg to 975 mg of powdered leaves should be used, I presume for a litre of syrup based on other writings in the text. The dose is 3 times per day; again I presume the dose would be between 3-7 mL.

From the research presented it is apparent that Savin Juniper is toxic, but that the toxicity is dose dependent. Moreover, clearly it is the essential oil that is the most toxic. A safe dose to ingest of the leaves and berries is not entirely clear from the literature. Although some indication is given from older texts there are discrepancies in dose. Further sub-lethal toxic doses in humans and animals vary widely. Tasting a single berry seems unlikely to cause any toxic effects, however, without a doubt caution must be taken to not ingest significant amounts of unidentified juniper leaves or berries.
It is worth noting that it is likely safety concerns for Savin Juniper that have been indiscriminately extrapolated to other species of juniper including Common Juniper. It is frequently noted in books and online that care should be taken when ingesting juniper due to potential kidney toxicity. However, incredibly high doses, as high as 1000 mg/kg, of the essential oil of Common Juniper were fed to rats for 28 days without causing any toxicity to the kidneys (Schilcher and Leuschner, 1997). Small doses of the essential oil were even shown to have kidney protective effects in rats (Butani et al. 2003). Further, Common Juniper was traditionally used in Bosnia and Herzegovina for kidney and urinary system disorders (Redzic, 2007). I was pleased to find that the Finish herbalist Henriette Kress (2010) shares the same observation with regards to Common Juniper on her website.

Butani, L., Afshinnik, A., Johnson, J., Javaheri, D., Peck, S., German, J. B., & Perez, R. V.

2003, “Amelioration of tacrolimus-induced nephrotoxicity in rats using juniper oil”, Transplantation, vol. 76, no. 2, pp. 306‑311.

Casares, R. 1964, Juniperus sabina. Food, Cosmetics and Toxicology, vol. 2, 680-681.

Jazayeri, S.B.e.a. 2014, “A preliminary investigation of anticholinesterase activity of some Iranian medicinal plants commonly used in traditional medicine”, DARU Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, vol. 22, no. 17.

Madari, H. & Jacobs, R.S. 2004, “An Analysis of Cytotoxic Botanical Formulations Used in the Traditional Medicine of Ancient Persia as Abortifacients”, Journal of Natural Products, vol. 67, pp. 1204-1210.

Papavassiliou M.J. 1937, “Sur deux cas d’intoxication par la sabine la permèabilité placentaire a l’essence de sabine”, Société de Médecine Légale, vol. 15, pp. 778-81.

Redziz, S.S. 2007, “The Ecological Aspect of Ethnobotany and Ethnopharmacology of Population in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Collegium Antropologicum, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 869-890.

Revue Therapeutique. 1843, La Lancette Francaise Gazette des Hopitaux Civils et Militaires, book 5, vol. 2, pp. 588.

Toxic Juniper Tagged on: commonjuniper cupressaceae eclectics evidencebased fleshycones henriettekress herbalmedicine juniper juniperberries Juniperus kidneydamage latifasherbs medicine poisonousplants research safety savinjuniper toxicplant wildharvesting

Juniperus chinensis (Chinese Juniper)


Juniperus chinensis (Chinese Juniper) Seeds

Zones: 4 to 8.

Native to northeastern Asia.

The Chinese juniper is a very popular landscaping plant in gardens and parks and multiple cultivars of the plant are widely sold in garden centres. It is very suitable as a bonsai specimen. It prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soil, but is very adaptable.

Shape can vary from an upright conical tree to a shrubby or spreading form. It has scale-like dark green foliage and a brown bark that can peel on older trees. Female plants produce fleshy, berry-like seed cones that are initially whitish blue before maturing to dark blue in their second year.

Size: Height 20 to 50 ft; Width 20 to 40 ft.

Germination Instructions

Scarification: Chinese Juniper Seeds have a hard coat that should be lightly sanded and / or nicked with a file to help make it permeable to moisture to germinate. Next place the seeds in a container with warm water and let them soak for 24 to 48 hours.

Stratification: Provide about 60 days warm stratification followed by 90 days cold, moist stratification at 3° C (37° F) to 5° C (41° F).

  1. After scarification, place seeds in sandwich bag(s) with a bit of damp sand or vermiculite to keep moist.
  2. Warm stratify for 60 days.
  3. Next cold stratify. Place the bag(s) with seeds in refrigerator for about 90 days.
  4. After the required time take the seeds out of the refrigerator and sow the seeds in pots 1/4 inch deep and cover lightly. Water gently so as not to wash away the seeds. Keep soil moist but not wet.
  5. Do not throw out any seeds that have not germinated, but repeat the warm-cold stratification again and be patient for more seeds to germinate. Some seeds may germinate a few years after the original sowing date, so be patient.

Growing Bonsai from seed

In Japanese: “Misho” – Growing Bonsai from tree seeds can be very rewarding and gives you full control from the earliest stage possible. Although it takes a long time (at least three years) before you have a tree you can start working on, this is the only way to grow a Bonsai right from the start!

First of all, seeds need to be obtained; you can collect these from trees in your surroundings or you can choose to buy them in an (online) shop. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as special “Bonsai tree seeds” as Bonsai are created from normal trees.

If you collect seeds from trees growing in your local area planting the seeds in autumn will do just fine, however, if you want to plant seeds out of the season (during springtime for example), or if you purchase seeds online, or if you like to grow seedlings from trees not growing in your local climate, a process called “stratification” might be necessary.


Seeds of many tree-species are genetically programmed to survive through winter and germinate in early spring, to maximize the duration of their first growth season. In fact, most of these seeds will only be able to grow after a cold period.

So if you want to plant seeds for Bonsai, it might be necessary to mimic the cold season by storing the seeds at a cold spot for a few weeks – increasing the germination rate significantly. Seed of most tree-species will need to be soaked in water first and then stored in your fridge for one or two months. The exact amount of time and optimal temperature will depend on the tree-species, a quick online search will provide you with an exact answer.

For beginners this might be a bit complicated, so it is advisable to collect seeds from tree species found near you, keep the seeds outside and plant them in early spring, just like Mother Nature does!

Video: Growing trees from ‘Bonsai tree seeds’


As mentioned previously, you can collect seeds from trees growing in your area in autumn. Seeds like chestnuts and acorns are easy to find in the forest. Seeds from conifers can be found inside pine-cones. Once you collect the pine-cones you need to store them in a warm place so they will release the seeds from between the scales. Seeds of various tree species are also easily available for purchase in (online) Bonsai shops.


The best time to sow seeds is the autumn, this way you follow nature’s time schedule and the young seedling will have a full summer to grow after germinating in early spring. This also means you don’t need to worry about stratification.

From seedling to Bonsai

Before we start propagating trees from seed, let’s look at the stages of development of seedlings first. Growing Bonsai from seed will be a test of your patience, but it is a great way to style Bonsai trees without the need to prune thick branches (which is often inherent to styling Yamadori or nursery stock).

Read the “Bonsai styling” section for detailed information about techniques including wiring and pruning. But first, six images of a Criptomeria tree that was grown from seed into Bonsai over the course of 15 years. Thanks to Jose Ontañón for sharing these inspiring images.

1 year old

2 year old

3 year old

5 year old

10 year old

15 year old

Ever wondered how to make gin? Or thought that, like most things, a home-made gin recipe using home-grown juniper berries is likely to taste better than the shop-bought version? This could be the answer…

Artisan gin-makers, Portobello Road Gin, are encouraging gin lovers to grow their own gin at home by giving away a complimentary juniper sapling with every purchase of their 75cl limited edition illustrated gift-wrapped bottle from Waitrose.

Once your sapling has been nurtured and your berries have been harvested, you can send them into Portobello Road Gin’s Distillery who will distill your very own gin for you!

But it’s not all about the alcohol. The gin company want to encourage people to grow their own bushes and contribute to conservation efforts for the native UK juniper plant, which has seen a rapid decline since 2004. It’s a good job, then, that British junipers can live up to a whopping 170 years.

Portobello Road Gin

Portobello Road Gin have also teamed up with gardener and author Alice Vincent to provide expert tips on how to grow and care for juniper berries.

“As modern life gets ever faster, our desire to slow down, escape our screens and reconnect with nature just gets stronger,” Alice Vincent, author of How to Grow Stuff said. “Growing stuff is a great way to switch off and get outdoors, and juniper is an easy, tolerant plant to inspire green fingers. 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

Alice’s top tips for growing your own juniper

  1. Use well-draining soil to make sure your juniper grows well in a wide range of temperatures. The great thing about junipers is that they are tough so are ideal for beginners – they don’t require too much effort.
  2. The juniper sapling can be planted all year round as it is a plug plant, which means it comes with its ready to go in compost.
  3. Junipers can be grown in your garden or a large plant pot but ensure that the area is free of weeds.
  4. Dig a hole about twice the size of the rootball and surrounding compost, and gently tease out the roots.
  5. Place the rootball into the hole, pat down the surrounding soil and give it a good watering.
  6. Water your juniper twice or three times a week for the first 14 days. But be careful not to over water it.
  7. Little further cultivation should be required. And now just wait for the plant to start producing the wonderful juniper berry.

Portobello Road Gin’s ‘Grow Your Own Juniper’ bottle is £25 in Waitrose stores. ‘How to Grow Stuff – Easy, no-stress gardening for beginners’ by Alice Vincent is published by Ebury Press, £12.99.


Natural Habitat

Juniper is an evergreen tree that grows wild throughout parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. Though there are many varieties of juniper, the most common in North America is the Juniperus communis. This particular tree grows up to 10 feet tall and has needle-like leaves and seed cones. The medicinal parts of the juniper tree are known as berries but are actually the dark blue-black scales that come from the cones. Scales from the male juniper ripen in 18 months while scales from the female juniper ripen within 2 to 3 years.

Health Benefits

Juniper Essential Oil

Extracts and essential oils from the juniper berries/scales contain terpinen-4-ol, a compound that stimulates the kidneys and acts as a diuretic. Amentoflavone, another compound, has antiviral properties.

The essential oils of juniper also prove beneficial when inhaled. Inhalation of juniper is used to treat bronchitis and act as a pain reliever that numbs pain. The use of juniper is not limited to medicinal use. The essential oils in juniper have a turpentine-like smell and a bitter taste. It is often used as a condiment or a flavoring for foods and beverages such as gin and bitters. Juniper can also be found in some cosmetics like lipstick, foundation, eye shadow, hair conditioner, bubble bath, and bath oil.

Ingesting Juniper

Ingested forms of juniper assist with inflammation and increase production of stomach acid, making them useful remedies to help soothe the gastrointestinal system. It is a helpful treatment for conditions such as upset stomach, heartburn, flatulence, bloating, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal infections, and intestinal worms. The antiseptic properties in juniper disinfect the urinary tract to provide treatment and relief for conditions like urinary tract infections, urethritis, kidney stones, and bladder stones. Juniper also acts as a diuretic to help flush excess fluids from the body. This helps rid the body of excess uric acid which can lead to gout. It also reduces fluid around the joints. Ingested juniper is high in natural insulin and therefore lowers blood sugar levels. It can also help heal the pancreas as long as no permanent damage has occurred on the organ. Juniper also alleviates problems associated with menstruation.

Topical applications

Juniper can also be applied topically to treat skin ailments and conditions. It is used to treat conditions like acne, athlete’s foot, warts, skin growths, cystitis, psoriasis, and eczema. Cade oil, which comes not from the berries but from the tree’s wood, is particularly helpful in treatment of psoriasis on the scalp. Moreover, antibacterial properties make juniper a treatment for skin wounds and snakebites. Topical application also provides relief for joint and muscle pain and is especially helpful to those suffering from arthritis and rheumatism.

How to Take Juniper

Juniper is available in many forms, such as teas, capsules, ointments, or lotions. Tea is generally used for digestive problems while oils are often reserved for use in hot baths for inhalation. Short-term use of 1000 to 2000 mg. per day divided into 2 to 3 doses for up to 6 weeks is generally considered safe for most people.

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