Juniper Berries, Unique Coniferous Fruits
Juniper berries may just be the only fruits that grow on conifers... and you might be surprised at all their uses
Juniper berries represent something exceedingly rare: food that grows on a conifer tree. The only other thing that comes close is the pine nut, which is, of course, cool in its own way. And like pine nuts, the berries of the juniper are associated with cones.
In fact, the berries are themselves the female cones of the tree, for all that they look like little blueberries.
Uses for Juniper Berries
Eating these berries has been likened to "chewing pine-flavored gum," and true enough, they're not at their best straight from the source -- no more than chocolate or rhubarb are. They require processing for the best possible use, and over the years, people have found some doozies.
Besides providing flavoring for gin (the name is derived from the Dutch for juniper, genever), the berries have long been used for treating asthma and sciatica. Native Americans used them to treat diabetes, and they're undergoing medical testing for that use right now.
The fruit of the juniper, however, is more often used in cooking. It makes a piquant sauce for bird dishes such as woodcock, pheasant, and quail, while some cooks use it to sauce boar, veal, and venison. It's said to impart a "sharp, clear flavor" to the meats, and adds overtones of citrus.
Now, if it seems wasteful to grow junipers just for a little sauce now and then, consider what we grow cranberries for. Hmmm?
How to Grow Junipers
Junipers tend to grow slowly, but not much more so than other berry trees, such as mulberries. They require well-drained soil, and many species (especially those mistakenly called "cedars" in the U.S.) do well in arid areas. Otherwise, they're not picky about soil, thriving in a wide range of pH values.
As long as you keep the soil from becoming boggy, your junipers will do fine. They're fairly fast growers, but realize that it may take as long as 20 years for a juniper to get as high as 10-15 feet, especially if water is scarce. You can help by keeping them well-watered in their first year or two, but don't overdo it.
Specific Species to Grow
It's critical to realize that while all juniper species produce berries, not all of them produce edible berries. The Savin Juniper's berries are slightly toxic, and many other species produce very bitter fruit.
Traditionally, species grown for edible berries include Juniperus drupacea (Syrian Juniper), Juniperus oxycedrus (Prickly Juniper), Juniperus phoenicea (Phoenician Juniper), Juniperus deppeana (Alligator Juniper) and Juniperus californica (California Juniper). The last two are native to the U.S.
However, Juniperus communis, the common European juniper, remains the most common source of edible juniper berries.