Thursday, October 7, 2010

The "Berry" With a Bite

    The first time I encountered common juniper (Juniperus communis),it was as a prickly bedfellow in a peat bog. I’d been bushwhacking up a stream, swatting at no see ums, when I broke into a clearing of indescribable beauty. Velvet pillows of moss and bonsai shore pine framed a pool of yellow pond lilies reflecting blue sky. Claude Monet could have painted his famous Water-Lily Pond canvases in this wilderness Eden. I lay down on the inviting moss to admire the view. A moment later I jumped upright again.

    I’d been bitten—or so I thought. I checked the impression where my back lay for a spider or centipede. Finding nothing, I pressed my palm into the culprit spot. Immediately a porcupine prickle pressed back. Tendrils of juniper boughs had worked themselves into the moist fissures under the moss from a nearby bush. Or maybe the moss overtook the juniper? Either way, I’d lain down on an invisible pincushion. Appropriately, the people of Haida Gwai called this aromatic shrub “swamp boughs” because it thrives in bogs.

Common Juniper, courtesy of the
 National Park Service
    Common juniper is so common it is the only evergreen that circles the northern hemisphere. Prized across Europe for its edible berries (actually not berries at all—but round cones), it is one of the few “spices” to evolve in the cold, northern climates. Juniper berries take 2 years to ripen. So you’ll often find both ripe and unripe berries on the same bush.

    If you pop a dark, ripe berry in your mouth, it tastes bittersweet and peppery with a hint of pine. Juniper harbors a volatile oil called terpinen-4-ol that gives it a distinct evergreen note. It is the ripe berries--the color of blue-black raven feathers--that are crushed for culinary use.

    Green, unripe berries are preferred for flavoring Gin. The word gin is short for genievre-- or juniper in French. First distilled in Holland during the 1600s gin was drunk as a tonic to aid digestion. Medicinally this matches up. For centuries juniper has been prescribed to treat flatulence, gastrointestinal ailments, and sooth common stomach indigestion. First cultivated in 1560, juniper’s use as medicine was first penned on Egyptian papyrus dating at 1500 B.C.  Closer to home, the Inupiat people traditionally downed one juniper berry a day to prevent flu. The Tsimshian pounded a poultice of branch and berry for wounds.

    Harvesting juniper berries is a prickly ordeal. I’d recommend gloves or judicious plucking. After all, you don’t need much for a sauce—5-8 ripe berries—since juniper is a potent flavoring. Historically, in Europe, peasants gathered juniper berries by spreading a cloth under a bush and beating the boughs to remove the fruit. They were further sun dried before storage. If you buy whole berries at a spice shop, they’ll be shiny black and a pinch bigger than a peppercorn. The smoky bloom will have worn off from handling. 

    First cultivated in 1560, common juniper is a valued ornamental. In the wild it is a pioneer plant—arriving first to disturbed sites and quickly stabilizing the soil. Many animals depend on common juniper for food and cover. American robins, black-capped chickadee, Bohemian waxwings, wild turkeys, and red fox gorge on cones. Mule deer, mountain goats, moose, white-tailed deer, caribou and rabbits all browse on common juniper when pickings are slim. The prickly fortress of branches provides nest cover for wild turkeys, winter roosts for short-eared owls, and building materials for wood rat nests.

Juniper Follow Up:  Common Juniper Field Notes

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