This shrub was used in many different applications in the past. It was once burned for purification and exorcism, and is considered one of the oldest sources of incense. Juniper berries have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs at multiple sites, and the Greeks were known to use them for increased stamina during their Olympic events. (1,2) It was also hung by the door to deter theft, and protect against evil spirits. The essential oil has been used medicinally and therapeutically by aromatherapists; and the Native Americans used all parts of the shrub for medicine, ceremonial rituals, and to attract love. (3) In the 17th century, Franciscus Sylvius (a German physician and scientist) wanted to create a diuretic tincture using juniper berries infused in a distilled elixir. He named it “genievre”, but today, we call it Gin. (4) You will also find that Northern European cuisine uses dried juniper berries for flavoring in many of their dishes. Today, we use juniper berries for flavoring, and medicinal purposes.
Juniper has the largest geographical range of any woody plant in the world. (5) They are found from Western Alaska throughout Canada and Northern U.S.; as well as, coastal areas of Greenland and Iceland. You can also find this shrub throughout Europe, Northern Asia, Japan, and North Africa. This evergreen shrub is hardy in zones 2-6, and can typically grow from 5 – 20 feet. The prostrate limbs can likely spread up to 15 feet. Juniper prefers full sun locations and drier soil, but will tolerate many soil conditions. You can often find this shrub in dry woods, on hills, or mountain slopes in varying elevations. The leaves are narrow, and needle-like placed in whorls of three. They are gray-green to blue-green in color and usually ½ inches long. This shrub is considered a dioecious plant, which just means that the male and female reproductive organs are on separate individual plants. There is a male plant and a female plant. The male plant needs to be planted near the female plant in order for the female plant to bear fruit. The male plants will produce yellow flowers, and the female plants will produce green flowers. The berries are actually female seed cones, and ripen to a bluish-black in the second or third year.