By Meg Cathcart-James
Juniperus communis is the most widespread of the juniper species. Juniperus is within the conifer family Cupressaceae. Whether as a small evergreen tree or a shrub, it is one of the most globally widespread woody plants. J. communis is cultivated in the horticulture trade as an ornamental, with its timber and other non-timber products collected mainly from the wild, which have a wide variety of human uses; some dating back to prehistoric times.
In Britain and particularly Scotland, in the Highlands where J. communis typically thrives, there have been substantial declines and the species is now part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. A Plantlife study in 2015 found that the spread of a deadly phytophthora fungal disease is causing mature trees not to produce seeds. If us Brits wish to continue enjoying our gin then conservation work needs to be carried out to prevent further declines. With the meteoric rise of the gin industry it would be easy to write a whole blog entry just on that topic; however, there is a lot more to the common juniper than may immediately spring to mind.
Juniper at Christmas? Perhaps not one of the plant species that would appear high on people’s lists, but it is often considered one of the most important plants in Christmas ethnobotany. The association of juniper with Christmas stems from its role in the story of how the Holy Family fled King Herod to Bethlehem; as they ran through low fields with nowhere to hide, a juniper bush opened its branches to enclose them and Herod’s soldiers could not see them through the spiky exterior so they passed by. The story goes that Mary blessed the juniper bush in gratitude, and Joseph soothed their frightened donkey by wiping its sweat away with one of its branches. Thus, the juniper has become a Christian symbol for protection.
This story has borne rural Christmas customs, such as American and European farmers hanging juniper boughs or wreaths on their stable and barn doors. Juniper is also used as an indoor Christmas tree. Historically, juniper’s status as a holy tree led to people at Christmas using the smoke of burning branches to purify their homes; the fragrant white smoke was also used as incense in churches.
The juniper genus is characterised by fleshy cones with hard-shelled seeds (commonly known as juniper ‘berries’) which although evolved to aid avian seed dispersal have the happy secondary result of being delicious when dried and incorporated into human recipes! Their strong and bitter taste is thought to have evolved to deter mammalian seed predators; alas, this clearly hasn’t worked in the case of mammals such as myself, as it is this taste that has made them a widely used culinary ingredient in both food and drink.
Can you guess which juniper-based beverage I’ll mention first? That’s right, Finnish sahti-style beer! Sahti is a traditional ale made in Finland, where the mash is filtered through juniper branches. Proper sahti has protected geographical status and is only available commercially from breweries, pubs and some shops in Finland. Any ‘sahti-style beer’ you see elsewhere is not the real deal. The Finlandia Strong Sahti shown in the image on the right (image: Wikipedia) is 8% ABV so drink this beer with some caution!
Juniper is also used in the making of traditional ales in Norway where a juniper infusion is used instead of just water, as well as in other countries such as Sweden, Estonia and Latvia where juniper branches are used in the same way as in sahti brewing.
If the idea of high strength, low carbonated Scandinavian beer doesn’t tickle your fancy then perhaps I can interest you in what is arguably the most popular spirit of today’s drinking culture – gin! The name gin comes from the Old English word genever, derived from the French genievre, or the Dutch jenever – both words meaning juniper. A fermented grain mash is distilled with botanicals to release their aromas. There are literally hundreds of botanicals that can be used to flavour gin, but along with juniper the most popular are coriander seeds, angelica root, lemon peel and cassia. Did you know that for anything wanting to be classified as gin, juniper must be the primary botanical and the dominant flavour?
Juniper is gin, and gin is my Christmas; it has always been my family’s traditional Christmas Day drink and it’s the reason I wanted to write about juniper for my Advent Botany article. Rather than hot summer days in a pub garden, gin reminds me of fairy lights, snow and roast potatoes!
The classic accompaniment, tonic water, has an intertwined history with gin. Quinine was taken by British tropical colonies to combat malaria, and its bitter taste was masked by adding gin after the quinine was dissolved in carbonated water. Today’s tonic waters contain only a tiny proportion of quinine by comparison, so unfortunately a bottle of Gordon’s with some Schweppes slimline isn’t going to do the trick if you’re off to Africa or South America!
The second Saturday of June has been World Gin Day since 2009; if you don’t fancy it for Christmas, then please raise a glass with me on June the 9th, 2018.
If you would prefer to eat your J. communis rather than drink it, the strongly aromatic taste of the berries goes well with pork, rabbit, venison or duck. For my fellow vegetarians, there is a wonderful recipe (see Genius Kitchen) for garlic and juniper roast potatoes!
Alternatively, rather than eating or drinking your juniper you could wear it – one of the myriad uses for juniper essential oil is in fragrances, so why not give Juniper Sling by Penhaligon’s, Eternity by Calvin Klein or Polo by Ralph Lauren a try?
However you enjoy J. communis, whether by consuming it, decorating your house with it, growing it in your garden or seeing it thrive well in the wild, it is a plant species we humans have revered and cultivated for thousands of years. Long live the juniper, and a very happy Christmas to you all!
You can also add sloes to gin to make a warming winter drink.