Junipers are not the trees you think of associated with the drizzly Pacific Northwest. But they are old friends from home in the much drier south, much to the dismay of many pollen allergy sufferers there. The male trees can be so prolific it looks like smoke in the air. For this and other misinformed reasons, there is a trend of hating these trees, which are in fact native to this area across the south though they are spreading in an unhistorical way. To my endless annoyance people call these trees cedars. That’s a left-over from the history of mistaking them for a Cedrus not Juniperus species. Despite knowing for a long time that they are in the Juniper genus, the common name of a cedar persists as southerners are what you may understate as “stubborn”. Don’t get me started on Spanish “moss”…
As allergy sufferers may well know, junipers are wind pollinated, hence loading the air/wind with their pollen. No need for bees or birds or beetles. What they lack in the precision of animal-aided pollen movement they make up for in volume. “Cover everything in a square mile and surely there will be some female flowers of my kind in there.” Some junipers are more famous for this and especially when they have large populations so the cumulative effect of tree-mating season can be impressive.
There are 13 juniper species that range in any part of North America. There are actually two native junipers in Washington: J. occidentalis (meaning “western”, of course) and Juniperus maritima (“seaside” and only newly discovered endemic to WA and British Columbia in Canada). Originally it was thought the J. maritima was a subspecies of the very common and wide-ranging Rocky Mountain juniper (which is all along the western US Rockies and into western Canada) but has recently been categorized as its own unique species and quite unusual to have along the wetter PNW region. It found special pockets of drier rockier soils to inhabit where it isn’t outcompeted by faster growing trees.
Juniperus occidentalis distribution
The western juniper is actually expanding its habitat range since the 1990’s and particularly in eastern Oregon, which is not surprising as climate trends dry and warm, which is fine by a juniper. Like other species, western juniper has an extensive root system. Like other dry-climate trees, they are slow growing and long-living with some exceeding 1,000 years. Researchers have found that 40-50% of observed trees will make only female cones (that will then produce the juniper ‘berries’) and only 10% produce only male. So that’s a relief for western pollen allergy sufferers. More berries, less pollen load. Fine by me. But young trees won’t produce any cones for a while and you’ll know them by their different spiny needles instead of typical tiny scale leaves. Didn’t know you could check for puberty on a tree, before did ya?? It’s possible the spinier leaves on smaller trees helps reduce browsing by the local wildlife (lookin at you deer).
The fruits also range in their maturity time from species to species, with them generally taking between one to three years. That means you’ll probably see a female tree (or a hermaphroditic one) with both young green and mature bluish fruits at the same time.
Juniper “berries” are nowhere near being an actual berry. They are a bit like yew tree “fruits”, a fellow conifer, and are in fact a fleshy cone.... Ew. “Fleshy cone” is one of those terms that kind of gives ya the heebie-jeebies, huh? Sounds like a descriptor out of a romance novel written by aliens. Junipers may be a connection between gymnosperms and angiosperms within one of the more recently evolved families of gymnosperms (Cupressaceae), with evolution of a fleshy dispersal coating like fruit around its seeds, but not evolved from a mature ovary like true fruits. You’d need a microscope to tell they aren’t true fruits like those of flowering plants because it’s all in the way they are formed. So let’s not get too berry-picky, kay? Juniper berry-cones are fabulous for plenty of reasons and hold from one to six seeds depending on the species.
Fun ID fact- J. maritima uniquely has open “berries” with a seed exposed to the outside, like mom forgot to tuck one kiddo in for the winter.
Quick question- What IS an actual berry then? Strawberries- also not a berry. I know! Farmers & grocery stores area terrible at botany. Botanically, a berry is defined as a fruit (meaning from a flowering plant, not conifer) that originates from a single pistil with several seeds developed inside as it matures. Tomatoes & peppers, blueberries & cranberries (accurate), plus grapes, currents, bananas (I know but it is!), also orange and eggplants. But NOT- strawberry (that’s a bunch of tiny fruits on a swollen chunk of stem), or raspberries or blackberries which are aggregate fruits, from multiple pistils- check-out the tiny hair-like things poking from each fruity bump. So yeah, “berry” is a very misused term, but that’s because people started calling any small tasty fruit a berry before botanist nailed down a precise definition. So we totally forgive you! Blend that “berry” smoothy up & enjoy.
Speaking of eating “berries”… Not all species of juniper’s fleshy cones are considered edible or even safe- some species are flat out poisonous. Don’t put just any in your smoothy. But it is very few juniper that are dangerous and none native to North America, so we are fairly safe. There are about 67 accepted Juniperus species in the world with 60 of those in the northern hemisphere. They are all evergreen conifers. Some are trees, other creeping shrubs and they are all known to tolerate more extreme habitats and rocky regions.
Species in North America that are edible, include:
seaside (J. maritima) – very limited range in only western WA & British Columbia
American (J. californica) – in California and very bitter though technically edible.
creeping (J. horizontalis) – across northern North America and distinctly low-growing
one-seed (J. monosperma) – name says it- only 1 seed, in western US and northern Mexico
alligator (J. deppeana) – have very cool bark- hence named for alligator skin- and grow in southwestern US into Mexico, with very strong flavor and 15mm “conerries” so use sparingly.
ash cedar (J. ashei) – from west Texas into south Mississippi (commonly called mountain cedar, not a cedar), has more shrub-like and irregular growth form.
Pinchot’s (J. pinchotti) – southern New Mexico through west and central Texas & north into Oklahoma. Deep red/burgundy berries which are sweet & non-resinous
Rocky Mountain (J. scopulorum) – *2nd most commonly consumed, also found in west WA islands and throughout all of western US and into Canada.
Sierra (J. occidentalis) – in western states, has reddish peeling bark
Utah (J. osteosperma) – in southwestern US with larger cones (up to 13mm)
Virginia (J. virginiana) – from Texas into eastern US (sometimes called Eastern red cedar, sigh- not a cedar).
Useful Key to Juniper genus of US & Canada: HERE
There’s also the tallest species that is native to Europe (J. drupacea) and has large “conerries” up to 30mm (wow!). Juniperus communis is the most edible, which is to say the least toxic as all have a tiny bit of toxicity, similar to most spices. 'Everything in moderation'.
Inedible/toxic “conerries” are those of J. sabina (the tam or savin juniper) which are from China and Europe but can be found planted as landscaping plants in the US. They are high in sabinene and sabinol compounds which are toxic to us. ID: leaves have an unpleasant scent when crushed. It also grows fairly low but less creeping than the creeping juniper and spiking upward into the air more. Also the J. oxycedrus (cade or prickly juniper) is toxic but rare in the US because they are native to Europe and has short pokey spiney leaves when mature (similar to the most-edible J. communis). Prickly juniper makes uniquely orange-red cones with a pale triangle bottom & indent.
Other species with highly bitter cones (but technically edible to moderate degree) are high in the resin thujone (named for cedar trees of the Thuja genus) which are a bit toxic in high amounts. So a field taste-test before your harvest is a good idea, to see how bitter they are as you probably won’t have much use for anything that level of edible. Just make sure they are actually from a juniper!
Juniper fruits come off the axis of a leaf, so steer clear if it’s not in the arm-pit of a stem and leaf. Cypress trees (Cupressus genus) form fairly similar blueish fruits and small scale leaves, and they are NOT edible. So “know before you go” with foraging. Cypress fruits/fleshy cones are more decorative like spiked torches instead of berries, with short protruding points in a loose pattern around the ends. They are also bigger than most juniper cones. Even more cautionary- don’t pick any red fruits from a conifer. They are probably from a yew (in the Taxus genus) which are very very toxic. True that above we learned there are edible red juniper “conerries”, but there are also some inedible and with the possible confusion with these even more toxic fleshy cones of yew, I say steer clear of them all unless you’re a pro. Plenty of cattle deaths have been attributed to them and often without any initial symptoms. You may not even have a warning you messed up. But they also look very different, even the leaves of a yew are quite different from a juniper’s.
Remember- red conifer cone will “Tax-us”, blue with spikes aren’t that nice, but blue and round are gin-bound.
Let’s also address this whole “I’m gonna call it a cedar because I don’t pay attention to trees but I advertise their names” thing. Trying so hard to hold in my botany-judginess, how am I doing?? Cedars are in the Thuja genus and have scale leaves (similar to a juniper’s) but they look more like a squished tulip flower with two opposite leaves of round bottom pulled up to point like a tulip petal from the side and then a leaf between them like a petal viewed from straight on).
Uses- drinks, syrups, and meat and sometimes as a stand in for peppercorns. Northern Europe uses juniper “conerries” (cone/berry) very frequently in cuisine. It’s common in German sauerkraut and sometimes even found in beer and sourdough starters because the white coating is actually a wild yeast that grows in certain species. Self-yeasting cone-beer? Yes please! They overall taste sharp, ‘piney’ or resinous, and a bit woody, sometimes even floral with some being a notably sweet, while others are unpalatably bitter as we've mentioned. We get most of the 'juniper' flavors from terpenes in the cones, which are the strong aroma compounds of plants (giving eucalyptus, cannabis, citrus, sage, lavender, and mint their scent & flavor among so many others, especially herbs). The cones are also used medicinally for a handful of ailments. Stick to moderation, just like with the gin. Consuming too many cones may cause stomach irritation and even increase your heart rate. Some people are allergic to them and can have a dermatitis from handling them. You’ll probably want to test for such an allergy with your hands before harvesting a bunch and trying any other uses. I am so glad nothing has shown up for me as an allergy from plants because I can’t help touching most of them.
To eat them fresh, you want very ripe blue berries (some have a white coating once mature as well- remember the yeast?), so don’t directly eat green ones. Unless you’re a micro-distiller ;) To be continued.
Junipers for Gin:
Probably the most popular edible use of juniper trees is harvesting the “conerries” for making gin. In the actual production of gin, they tend to use the unripe softer green fruits. J. communis is the most commonly used juniper for gin brewing and has some of the more unusual leaves actually. Even the mature trees keep their short needle-like spiky leaf forms, but the “conerries” are classic juniper- blue orbs about pea-sized. And as they are the most edible, that makes sense to be the most used for gins. But some micro-distilleries are starting to explore other options, like a family-owned company with a University of Texas professor who started trying some different junipers for their gins, since 8 species grow in Texas alone (only the 1 grows in the United Kingdom where gin really hit it's stride and massive production). They went with the alligator and redberry species which create unique flavor profiles. The popularity of gin is back on the rise and new approaches are welcome.
Gin is a highly distilled alcohol, basically vodka, of 80 proof (40% ABV) or greater that is distilled from grains and flavored post-distilling with various botanicals like herbs, flowers, etc, but must include juniper berries. Juniper is what makes it gin (not a brandy or vodka), plus being from a neutral alcohol base.
Beginning in “Flanders” (historical Netherlands) in 17th century, by Franciscus Sylvius, originally a sort of brandy from cereal grains and flavored by macerated juniper berries to create a Flemish “genever” alcohol. The original name or “genever” in fact is the Dutch word for juniper. This was actually to hide the taste of defects in the original distillation. Olden gins were neither good on their own or good for you. But they and most of those today are unified by juniper as their flavor base. And like many such drinks, gin originated as a medicinal for various ailments. Gin hopped from northern Europe to Britain and gained a very strong association with the English due to it’s rapid popularity (and of course how much the Brits got around across the globe, no doubt toting gins). The 1720s saw an official “Gin Craze” of London where many households were even brewing their own and required Parliament intervention to rein in the wild times fueled or rather lubricated by the drink. The low quality of the gin in this time period brought the name “rot gut” and the well known “bathtub gin” (not actually made in tubs but needing the taller faucet of a tub to fill the big bottles with water).
Rations of gin were even part of the British navy (heard of “navy strength” gin?) in the 17th century and the gin was used to help sanitize the water on board, so it needed to be of such a high alcohol volume that it could ignite gunpowder that was soaked with the gin (the test the sailors would apparently do. The minimum ABV was 57%
Gin infusion can be from steeping (just like a tea, using heat) or vapor infusion where the botanicals are steamed above the gin and infuse in the air. The distilling with botanicals is what distinguishes gin from just flavored vodka (maybe with juniper added after).
I grabbed some juniper "conerries" during various trips and thought it would be interesting to taste-test them against each other. Because I don't have a distilling set-up, I infused a standard London dry gin with additional juniper flavor from the three species' cones I collected from three different states. So this was making some extra strong juniper terpene infusion. I’m straight up adding my own juniper “conerries” to already distilled gin. These will be uber-junipered for a "juniper-strength gin experiment". Copyright that term- me.
Three Juniper Gin Experiment:
Species I collected:
Juniperus californica – Collected in south east California, known to be very bitter (but edible)
Juniperus ashei - Collected in central Texas and once called, "The evil juniper makes evil gin" but I'm going to test that.
Juniperus maritima – Collected in NW Washington along coast, fairly rare and little known of their edibility (found 1 report of no ill effects from eating a few).
I just plopped a few dried "conerries" into the same London dry gin and left it to infuse for at least 1 month to reach flavor saturation.
What better way to compare the flavor of these uber-junipered gins than with some cocktails?! Of course I sniffed them periodically and had a few ‘nips’ from the bottles as they infused, but I never drink straight gin so the real test for me is how I would actually drink it. Here are the cocktail recipes I used, two simple and one fancy:
Notable initial observations:
CA: Juniperus californica – very strong aroma and bitter flavor, light yellow hue.
TX: Juniperus ashei - nutty aroma and sweet flavor, rich amber hue.
WA: Juniperus maritima - mild and very light yellow hue.
Interestingly, the California juniper created an iridescent slight milkiness to the cocktails but not the gin itself. Overall, these were STRONG. And generally too bitter to really be palatable for me at a normal gin-mixer ratio. Maybe it's also me being a lightweight and not a huge gin drinker despite some British heritage. But I respect the alcohol for it's heavy botanical featuring. In a gin & tonic, the CA uber-juniper gin was too biting and bitter with lingering aftertaste of not-good and only hint of citrus but the TX one was more pleasantly nutty sweet and resinous with WA's being quite mild, citrus and tart.
A classic martini was next (alas I didn't have any olives! Also only 1 martini glass, so that got a plain gin martini to contrast to the others). The CA one was again bitter while a bit more tart & lemony with the vermouth and lemon peel. The TX one was smoother and again more resinous and sweet, while the WA one slightly tart and bitter but again more mild overall. A plain martini to me was mild, tangy, and a little bitter. So I don't think this is my drink. I had never had one before that day in fact. Onward to my style of cocktail!
The strawberry & thyme gin sour involved making some thyme syrup from my own garden-grown thyme (quite good and will use that up easily), and muddling some strawberries with lemon juice and shaking up with ice. I made a batch of the ingredients but left out the gins until poured into their glasses to keep everything exactly the same. Oh I love food science!
This cocktail was more flavorful and pretty. Again, the CA-juniper gin was iridescent, making it quite pretty but still not all that drinkable with the higher bitterness, plus piney backside & tart. I think the conclusion is strong- J. californica cones are indeed very bitter. The TX one was strong but not as sweet as expected maybe each version of this cocktail had the thyme syrup. But there was the same nutty and even more noticeably resinous flavor as before with less lemon tartness than the others. WA's was tart and slightly sweet from the syrup with subtle piney taste plus a fruity backside.
I found the Juniperus ashei to be my favorite, to my surprise based on distillers experience with it as being "evil". Maybe there's some bias after growing up around that tree for over 20 years, not that I had ever eaten it before. But it really was sweeter and nuttier. Washington's somewhat rare Juniperus maritima was very unassuming and somehow fit the feel of the tree and landscape it grows in. I could see huge kelp plants in a small shoreline kelp forest while harvesting from these junipers, though from the views I would have hoped for a sweeter flavor. It's a sweet spot they have etched out for themselves.
I learned a lot about the junipers of these three states and about gin drinks. I don't think I'll have much use for the extra bitter one but look forward to more cocktails with my nutty and evil J. ashei boosted gin. Advise for those to follow in my footsteps- lessen the gin proportion as I think the extra juniper infusion makes it too strong to use normally. So you'll save money on your gin budget this way! If you have such a thing.
I'll keep my foraging budget open! Not just for boozy drinks, juniper "conerries" are both diuretic and have a terminen compound which helps the kidney filter urine faster, so they can help flush out your urinary tract. They are known for several other medicinal properties, so not a bad idea to use as a small addition to your spice rack. Maybe I'll try some sauerkraut taste tests next. Mmm... now my German side is interested. But I may just throw out the last of my CA harvest. Bleh!
Happy foraging to you and don't forget to remember to drink responsibly and full of flavor.