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Herb to Know: Juniper

| February/March 1996

  • Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

Juniperus communis
• (Joo-NIP-er-uss kom-YOU-niss)
• Family Cupressaceae
• Hardy tree

The genus Juniperus contains about seventy species of evergreen trees or shrubs in the Northern Hemisphere, some thirty of which are native to North America. Common juniper (J. communis) is an erect or prostrate shrub or small tree to 35 feet tall. Native to much of North America and Eurasia, this species is said to have a wider distribution than any other tree or shrub.

Juniper’s berries are relished by cedar waxwings, quail, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons; its dense, prickly foliage has made it useful as a shelter for birds and small mammals. Legend has it that juniper branches sheltered Mary and Jesus in their flight from King Herod. Some people have thought that planting a bush by the front door would repel witches, who, however, might still get in if they could correctly count its needles. The smoke of juniper burned during childbirth was once believed to keep fairies from substituting a changeling for the newborn and was also reputed to protect against plague and leprosy.

The red-brown or gray-brown bark is smooth at first but later becomes fibrous and shreddy. Young shoots are triangular in cross section with longitudinal ridges. The sharply pointed, pungent needles, 3/8 to 1 inch long, grow in whorls of three at right angles to the twig. They are typically gray-green with a white band on the upper surface. A green midrib may divide the white band in two at the base of the needle. In spring, yellow male and female flowers are borne singly in the leaf axils, usually on different plants. They are wind-pollinated. The male cones are cylindrical and about 1/3 inch long. The round or oval female cones, 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter, take two or three years to ripen from green to blue or black three-seeded “berries”. The species has many natural and cultivated varieties that vary in habit and color. The wood is hard and resists insects.

Medicinal Uses For Juniper

Juniper berries, eaten raw or in tea, have been used to treat inflammation of the bladder, flatulence and other digestive disorders, respiratory ailments, intestinal parasites, venereal disease, and scurvy. Native Americans drank a twig tea for colds and stomachaches, and they applied hot packs of twigs and boiled berries to sores and aches. Juniper also has been used externally to treat snakebite and cancer.

Juniper is an ingredient of some commercial diuretics and laxatives. The essential oil is antiseptic but can cause blistering when used undiluted. Terpinen-4-ol, its principal active constituent, works by irritating the tissues of the kidney and intestine. Overdoses can cause kidney failure, convulsions, and personality changes. Although it contains vitamin C and is therefore effective in preventing or treating scurvy, long-term use of juniper tea can interfere with the absorption of iron and other minerals. Research has not supported its effectiveness in treating flatulence. Do not take juniper during pregnancy or if you have kidney disease, and don’t give it to children. The oil is most abundant in ripe, freshly picked berries, although it also occurs in the wood and the needles.

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