Synonyms: Common juniper
Scientific Name: Juniperus communis L.
Family: Cupressaceae (Cypress Family)
Europe, North Asia and North America
Essential oil, condensed tannins, flavonoids, resins, diterpenes
It looks a little straggly and prickly and is a native of inhospitable mountainsides, moors and heaths. Sometimes standing erect, sometimes hugging a rocky slope, the evergreen juniper can grow to a height of three metres. Anyone trying to gather its shiny bluish-black berries will inevitably come up against the sharp, needle-like leaves which are about a centimetre in length and radiate outwards in groups of three or four. Juniper is dioecious. This means that there are separate male and female plants on which the inconspicuous male and female flowers develop from April to May. The wind carries the pollen for fertilisation. The fertilised female flowers develop berry-like fruits which take three years to reach maturity. Because they take several years to ripen, the bush bears unripe green berries and ripe blue ones at the same time. Although we call them juniper berries, botanically they are in fact seed cones. A three-rayed fissure on the surface of the seed cone gives an indication of this. It is the result of coalescence of the three uppermost scales of the cone.
The generic name Juniperus probably derives from the Latin terms juniveris = young and parus = bearing. Thus Juniperus translates as young-bearing. This probably refers to the abortifacient properties of its close relative Juniperus sabina (savine). The epithet communis comes from the Latin and means common or ordinary.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans were already aware of many of juniper’s medicinal uses. They used the herbal remedy for kidney stimulation and as a disinfectant. Hippocrates used the berries topically for the treatment of wounds and systemically to speed up the birthing process and to treat discharge and stimulate menstrual bleeding. Dioscorides recommended juniper for chest complaints, coughs, general aches and pains and to treat bite wounds from wild animals. The chewing of juniper berries to prevent flu continued to be recommended until the early 20th century.
A German proverb advises the wanderer to bend his knee before the juniper. It deserves respect, this healer, which in the Middle Ages was even thought to be effective against the plague. A bird is said to have sung from the trees at times of pestilence: “Eat juniper and pimpernel and keep away the deathly knell.” This belief stems from the legend that Christ sought protection under a juniper bush when He encountered the plague. One of the German synonyms for juniper, Kranawitt, comes from Old High German and means 'crane wood'.
But the juniper is believed to ward off not only disease, but also goblins and other evil spirits, and even the devil himself, against whom it bravely stretches out its prickly leaves. Tradition has it that juniper wood used to make butter paddles or whip handles will ward off wicked spirits. Juniper berries and branches in and around threshing machines are supposed to protect against Bilwisschnitter, a corn demon.
The smoke of burning juniper wood was thought to be particularly good at driving demons away. So children who cried a lot were exposed to the smoke and farmers smoked out their stables with it.
The three-rayed fissure on the surface of the seed cone, which can be interpreted as a cross, inspired observers to create the legend that Christ ascended to heaven from a juniper bush. His cross was even supposed to have been made of juniper wood.
The old German name Queckholder, from Old High German quec = quick, alive, speaks of another role ascribed to the juniper: that of tree of life and symbol of physical strength. Wanderers attached juniper berries to their hats to stop themselves getting tired.
The Ancient Greeks associated juniper with Hecate, the goddess of transitions and transformation. This fits in with the fairy tale The Juniper Tree” which was recorded by the Brothers Grimm. This fairy tale bears witness to the life-giving and transforming powers of the juniper. In the story a woman and her husband have been living together for many years without having children. One winter’s day the woman cuts her finger while peeling an apple. Blood drips onto the snow and the woman wishes for a child as white as snow and red as blood. Nine months later her son is born, but the woman dies giving birth. Her sorrowful husband buries her under the juniper tree in the garden, according to her wishes. Some time later he marries again. The new wife bears him a daughter, but she hates the son from his first marriage so much that she drops the lid of an apple chest on his neck and cuts his head off. Then she cuts him in pieces and boils him to make soup, which she serves to her husband. She tells him his son has run away. But her daughter, who witnessed all that happened, gathers up her half-brother’s bones, weeping all the while, and places them under the juniper tree. The tree shivers, a bird flies out of it and the bones are gone. The bird sings to the goldsmith and is given a golden chain, to the cobbler and is given a pair of shoes and at the mill and obtains a millstone. He flies with these gifts to his father's house, where he throws the gold chain to his father and the shoes to his half-sister, but he drops the millstone on his stepmother, killing her. He is then transformed back into a boy. Father, son and daughter live together happily from then on.
The plant from another perspective
Juniper can live to a great age and bears three years’ growth of berries on its branches at the same time. This combination was believed to indicate exceptional powers of procreation and life. The essential oils that are normally found in the flowers permeate the juniper throughout its leaves and fruits and even into the wood. Essential oils are associated with warming and forming properties. In the juniper the formative element is reflected in the needle-sharp leaves. At the same time the bush is closely connected with the earth through its strong root system and therefore has the earth as one pole and warmth and light as the other. As a remedy which acts on the kidneys, it passes on its warming and formative powers to human beings, especially in conditions requiring increased excretion to flush out metabolic waste.