When I want more of something in my life, I’ll often look at the plants around me to see which ones have what I need. If I want to be more flexible and supple, for example, I may eat some kelp, or put some seaweed into my bath.
I don’t know about you, but in the dead of our second pandemic winter, I could use a little resilience, and for that, I turn to juniper. It thrives in hard places. It can root firmly in just a handful of sand, or a crack in a seaside ledge. It is most robust when faced with scorching sun and relentless wind. It glows from the onslaught of elements that most other life would wither from.
These traits sound awfully useful, and while my method of seeking them is not exactly scientific, I like to think there’s some logic woven into the whimsey of it. If not, well, at least juniper is delicious and it keeps me outside.
Common juniper (Juniperus communis) is not only the most widespread of the junipers, but of all the woody plants in the world, juniper grows in the harshest nooks and crannies of the northern hemisphere.
We have plenty of it here in Maine where it’s documented in every county, and as an evergreen, we’re able to forage for it all year long. It might be covered in a blanket of snow, now, in January, but it’s not uncommon to find it free of snow, or at least peaking through it, in south-facing or windswept places. I find it most often in places like the edges of farm fields and livestock pastures, power lines, sunny logging cuts, on the sandy edges of ATV trails and dirt roads, rocky outcroppings, and stony ledges.
Sometimes, especially if you’re walking bare-legged in the summer, you’ll find it by touch instead of sight — it is very prickly. While many junipers grow into upright tree forms, sometimes referred to as cedar trees, common juniper is a low-growing shrub, and while most other juniper needles will mature from prickly to scaly and smooth, common juniper needles keep their sharp points for life. For these reasons, I suggest wearing long pants, toed shoes and gloves when you head out in search of juniper berries (the berries are technically cones, but are almost always referred to as berries).
Juniper berries are the quarry we’re after for the kitchen, not the needles. In all of the places that juniper grows throughout the world, the berries are cherished for their flavor, which most describe as citrusy or piney, but they have a syrupy, sultry depth of flavor that I don’t find in either citrus or pine. We can thank those berries for the pungent flavor of gin that you likely either love or hate. They’re not always so bold though, and I bet you’ve tasted them before and not even noticed. They’re commonly used, sparingly, to lend that extra “something” to pickled, and preserved things, to add a floral bloom to the beers of northern Europe, or a tangy depth to pan sauces to spoon over wild game.
The berries also have valuable medicinal qualities that I won’t dive into here (they are worth looking up, though). One property to note is that they have reported contraceptive qualities, so if you are pregnant or would like to become pregnant, skip the juniper for now.
Juniper berries take about 18 months to ripen, so you’ll find both young, green berries, and mature blue and purple berries together on the plant, year round. The green berries taste of pine, citrus and hops, while the purple berries taste more of red wine, dried fruit and pepper.
I love to use the green berries for their brightness alongside or instead of citrus in cocktails, mocktails, cured fish or baked goods. Think, lemon-poppyseed cake with juniper glaze. Start with a simple syrup or a tincture (a handful of crushed berries in either a 1:1 sugar and water solution, or infused in alcohol) and add a dropperful to things you want to brighten up.
I like to use the mature, purple berries to add depth to things like ferments, pickles, cured meats, jams, and my favorite, pan sauce, preferably with some kind of stone fruit, served over seared venison or wild duck — lip smacking good stuff.
It makes me feel more resilient just thinking about it.