Juniper is a coniferous shrub that produces berries. In Old Crow, Yukon it is sometimes known as ‘sharp tree’ thanks to its very prickly needles which are very familiar to all who pick juniper berries. Juniper berries should be picked with great respect as it takes 3 full years for a berry to ripen! When ripe they turn from green to a dark blue. The ripe berries can be picked any time of the year, but you may have to dig to find them under the snow in the winter, as juniper is a low lying shrub.
Eaten raw, juniper berries have a distinct aromatic spicy flavour reminiscent of gin. Juniper berries make an excellent spice — especially once ground into a powder. A coffee grinder works very well for this. A small amount of ground juniper berry goes a long way. It can be used in marinades or dusted on wild game including moose, caribou and grouse. It can even be lightly dusted on salmon. A small amount can also be added to soups or stews.
According to Boreal Herbal, in Sweden a conserve is made out of juniper berries and used as a condiment for meats.
Juniper berries have a few extra qualities as well. They help digest gas-producing foods such as cabbage. Also, because juniper berries have a light coating of yeast on their skin, a few berries are often added to ferments to help out the lacto-fermenting process.
So adding a few juniper berries when making sauerkraut has a triple effect: flavour, aiding the fermentation, and less gas when you eat the kraut! The yeast coating on the berries also makes them a useful ingredient in creating sourdough starter (which is another form of fermentation). Mix some flour and water and add a few juniper berries. Once it becomes bubbly and smells yeasty, you can remove the berries and the sourdough starter will be well on its way!
In Old Crow, juniper berries are also boiled as a tea, which the Vuntut Gwitchin say also helps ease colds and cough symptoms.
Juniper berries should be used in moderation and avoided in people with kidney disease and in pregnant women.
Research for this post is from Boreal Herbal by Beverley Gray and Gwich’in Ethnobotany by Alestine Andrew and Alan Fehr.