Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain

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Pine, the Sacred Tree of Attis

Pine, another one of those hidden in the open, or as my Mom likes to say “if it was a snake it woulda bit ya,” plants that has a ton of uses but never really gets noticed…unless you are looking for a Christmas tree. Pines though, are a common species, and a very old species, used by many cultures since it has a pretty wide spread across the world with many different species. It is a relative of juniper, and of fir and cypress trees (which will be covered in later posts), and has species in every part of the globe.

Some more personal history of pines here, the tragic Bastrop fires in 2011 burned a massive amount of farm/ranch land, and houses, which was devastating enough. But it also burned some very rare pines called the Lost Pines, which is a group of Loblolly pines that were separated from their pine-y brethren in about the Pleistocene era. They are being replanted, but it will take a long time to replace these hardy, but beautiful trees in that area.

Loblolly pines, ancient, majestic, and useful!

Pine is one of those really great plants that is categorized as mostly harmless by most botanists and herbalists. In general, of course there are some that are exceptions. Since it is easy to find and most species are harmless I will not be differentiating between the different species (there are just too many!) But this is general information on pine and it’s uses, and I will list the most commonly used for each sort of preparation if there happens to be one. One of the best aspects of pine is, most pine species are high in vitamin C and vitamin A, and both are really important for your immune system.


Pines, being evergreen conifers, all tend to have cones of some sort, as well as needle like leaves, and the leaves contain the precious vitamins and oils used.

I am sure everyone has heard about getting enough vitamin C in their diet. The big C is such a vital vitamin it is why the term “limey,” a not so flattering term, was coined for Britishers. British sailors carried lime trees, sometimes lemons, with them to keep scurvy at bay, and improve the taste of stale water. Grog was the most well known dosing method, it was a mix of rum, water and lime juice. This disease was a limiter (besides water and food keeping) in the “Age of Exploration,” in its prevention of travel too far from fresh food.  Scurvy is a horrible disease, it is an incapacitating and painful disease of malnutrition. It is like gangrene in that your body is slowly breaking down, and is an extremely unpleasant way to die. In fact it wasn’t until the 18th century during the first travels of Captain Cook that it was recorded that not one man was lost to scurvy, which was quite remarkable at that time. Many colonies also suffered from scurvy during the colonial eras, and it was the Native Americans in the North American colonies that showed the new settlers how to eat pine needles in the winter to prevent Scurvy from taking its toll during harder food times.

Vitamin A is one you probably don’t hear a lot about, even though it is crazy important to have in your diet. Vitamin A, which is also prevalent in pine leaves (or needles), is vital to the immune system, the health of your retinas, and many other things. Vitamin A is the number one vitamin in the world that people do not get enough of, even in the “developed” world. It is really important to make sure that your diet has enough vitamin A, since it becomes harder to absorb if you get cortisone shots, also if you smoke tobacco, or drink frequently, which may cause a deficiency. If don’t consume enough fresh fruit and vegetables – which is a major issue in most countries that eat lots of processed food – you may be deficient and not even know it. So while vitamin A is not as well publicized it is just as vital as C in your diet to keep that immune system fighting strong. This becomes even more important if you are receiving cortisone shots, since your immune system needs to be strengthened as much as possible to help keep you from catching every bug that you happen to come into contact with.

For more information you can read on cortisone here, and vitamins and their role in the body here.

So, if you are ever lost in the woods, you could probably make tea or just eat pine needles (the young leaves, or tips are preferred to eat or make tea with) to survive and they would probably be safe. Unless you are Bear Grills, and then you will probably be too busy drinking your pee to make tea of pine needles. I say probably safe since some species tend to be a bit more resinous than others, if it smells like floor polish you probably shouldn’t drink too much of it, since it could be too much of a good thing. Though you probably won’t want to drink much anyway, it is very much like drinking pinesol and quite a turn off.

Not only are the needles good for vitamin C and A, as well as safe (most species), but the inner bark also can be used. It is known as the cambium in science terms, but it is the soft sort of stringy inner bark you see when you peel the bark off a tree. The stuff in between the outer rough bark and the inner wood of the tree. This inner bark can be dried and used as an ersatz (substitute or famine replacement) flour, or even as a gluten free option for thickening soups, stews, gravy, etc. The Adirondack Mountains are named after the Anglicization of the term that in the Mohawk language was a slightly derogatory term for Algonquian-speaking tribes that lived near them. It also happens to be the Mohawk word for the porcupine, who also eats bark. It was first coined due to the Algonquian tribes eating bark and buds of trees in famine times. It was also used by some Native American tribes as flea and lice repellents in bedding since adding pine needles to it can ward off insects.

In Western traditions its boughs and trees themselves were and are used often in Christmas decorations, or just in winter decorations due to their pleasant smell and long lasting green, which is so welcome in the white days of winters. Pine resin was also used to make rosin, for bowed instruments, as well as furniture polishes. Hippocrates studied pine for its respiratory (pulmonary) issues and found it useful for throat issues. Pliny the Elder also mentions its great therapeutic value, stressing how important it is for the respiratory system. Pine resin was used to line, and thus water proof, wine jars, and the taste of the pitch came to be a preferred flavor in most wines, just like some today may prefer earthy or leathery wines.

The Greeks also held pine to be sacred to the god Attis, which is part of some freaky-deaky mythology that seems oddly relevant after that one rapper that cut his junk off.

Warning : If you are sensitive to stories about knives and willies, you may want to skip to after the image, if you aren’t read on brave soul. 

So the myth goes, Attis was the lover of a goddess called Cybele (who was sort of an earth/mother goddess – most of her imagery was in the same style as Isis, or Mary – the mother goddess pictured seated with a child in her lap). One day Cybele catches Attis getting a little too friendly-like either with a nymph, or he was being married off to some mortal woman by his parents (it depends on who, when, and where you are asking). In her rage of jealousy she drives Attis mad. Since he is now “cray cray,” to use the parlance of our times, he then proceeds to cut his junk off. Which seems like a sensible way to deal with the whole situation, but at least it gets you into the eunuch club.

“Wooo Pink Wednesdays! Totes worth it guys” – Attius

One of the earlier rituals performed for Attis was a ritual cutting down of a pine tree, which became the symbolic phallus of Attis, and decorating it before it then ritually penetrates the earth by being planted. After planting it, you have a drink and a bit of a knees up. (Almost sounds like a fun Saturday night right?) But later on as the cult travels and evolves, soon since Attis became a eunuch, that meant all of his priests had to be eunuchs. And the initiation ritual became a sort of castration get-together. First you get really worked up, “into a frenzy,” and then just lop one’s junk off. There was a lot of junk cutting off, and symbolic willies related to this Attis and Cybele pair, as you can see, and the whole thing made the Romans rather uncomfortable with the whole business (which I mean, it makes me a bit uncomfortable, and I don’t even have willy to cut off). But they let it go on, because hey, who wants to piss off a guy that gets so worked up he cuts his junk off? And a goddess that seems OK with that sort of thing. No one with junk to cut off, that’s for sure.

Trust me dudes, you think I get cuckoo for coco-puffs? You don’t even want to see her flip her bitch switch.

If you are interested in other pine myths, that are a bit less freaky, check out this site for a quick overview, and there is always the story of Sinis.

As a cook I am very familiar with pine nuts. They are fairly common in a lot of styles of cooking, especially if you are making Middle Eastern food, or Mediterranean foods. You can’t make traditional kibbeh or pesto without them. There is also pine nut oil, made from pine nuts, it has a useful low smoke point, and was sometimes used during Lenten traditions when fats are banned. Pine nuts are a luxury item even today, commanding one of the higher prices for nuts since they are difficult to collect and pine trees generally have a low yield. Their flavor is very much worth the work to get them, and it was one of the foods gathered by almost every people that had edible-nut producing pines in their areas.

Chemically pine needles and pine essential oil (since it is a distillation of the oils from the needles) contain a lot of chemicals we have gone over already like α-pinene, limonene, terpineol (warming) and others. So we know it is a warming oil, with anti-inflammatory, mild analgesic and anti-spasmodic properties. One chemical that is frequently talked about in newer information is that some studies have shown that pycnogenol, found in pine leaves, has some inhibitory action on inflammatory chemical signals (COX-1 & COX-2) and could be useful in the treatment of inflammatory issues maybe even other uses but there is not enough scientific evidence to back this as a wonder drug or anything of that nature, though many sites will tout it as such.

Pine essential oil is a multitasker, besides all its great external uses is also a great scent, and can blend well with a lot of other scents just to relax, or for mixing oils that smell nice as well as increase the medicinal properties of the pine essential oils. It is also good for chest colds and congestion, rubbed into the chest as an oil or salve, or inhaled – as steam by dropping a few drops of the pure oils into a bowl of hot water and then breathed in with a towel over the head to trap the vapors. Most pine essential oils I have come across are made from Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), but there are others oils can be made of, make sure if you are purchasing essential oils you know which species of pine it comes from and do your research to make sure it is the right species for your issues.

Pine Essential Oil Rub for Joints and Muscles

  • 1 ounce Carrier oil (you could even use pine nut oil, but any good quality vegetable based oil will do)
  • 10-20 drops Pine essential oil

Mix well and store in a dark bottle. To use, massage into painful areas. Pine is great for aching joints, or just soothing muscles after a work out. I find this works great for minor spasm pain, and just to soothe achy muscles after injections or any sort of post-spasm pain. It can also help to alleviate stress, since its anti-spasmodic and slight sedative nature can relax the mind and body.

ProTip: if you want to add in eucalyptus, lavender, and rosemary they are all great scents that blend well with pine, and bring additional healing properties. Orange also smells great with pine.

You can make a pine pitch salves, which is not only good for pain, but great for wounds, and drawing out impurities (ie – splinters, gravel, dirt, really anything that you can get embedded in small amounts in a wound from a tumble). This is a very traditional medicine, something you could classify as “wise-woman” medicine, and was used by women in the frontier areas of America, possibly handed down through contact with Native Americans, to treat wounds that would otherwise have been a vulnerability for infection, gangrene, septicemia and other deadly infections.

Pine Pitch Salve

  • 1/2 ounce Bees Wax, granulated or grated
  • 2 ounces Pine resin
  • 4 ounces Oil (any good quality vegetable oils – jojoba, almond, coconut, olive, etc)

Heat oil in a double boiler, and add resin. Stir until melted and mixed thoroughly. Add in bees wax slowly, and continue to stir until it forms a uniform appearance. Pour into containers and allow to cool. Apply to wounds, and painful areas, as well as wounds with foreign objects, stys, splinters, and pimples. This is also great for fire ant bites, as it draws out the poisons, and regular bug bites.

You can also make pine tar tincture by dissolving it in a high proof grain alcohol (vodka, everclear, etc) in a 1 part pitch to 4 parts alcohol ratio. You can use the liquid to wash wounds, or as part of a warm water compress (a few drops on a damp hot towel or cloth) or as a sore throat remedy & cough remedy (recipes further down).

ProSurvivalTip: In survival situations you can also melt just the raw pitch, try to find large globs and remove them straight from the tree, and heat. Allow to cool until it is warm, and can be handled. While it is still pliable, apply to the wound to help heal and draw out impurities. The pitch once removed, will contain any foreign objects that were in the wound, and can be re-used to make a salve if conditions allow.

ProCollectingTip: Resin if you want to collect it yourself needs to be done in spring or summer when the sap flows in the tree. Usually you can find a tree that is producing sap from a naturally made wound, or you can cut the tree yourself and return to collect the resin. This is REALLY messy, sticky stuff, I suggest a dedicated collecting tool you don’t mind getting sticky or keeping kerosene or gasoline handy to remove it from hands and tools. It does well in parchment paper, and you can freeze it for easier handling.

Pine Resin and Raw Honey Salve

  • 2 ounces Pine resin (you can purchase this online, in some herb stores, or harvest it yourself)
  • 2 ounces Raw honey
  • 1 ounce Oil (any good quality oil will do)
  • Optional: 1/2 to 3 ounces bees wax, granulated or grated

Heat the oil in a double boiler, and add the pulverized resin slowly. Once it has melted and combined into the oil add in raw honey. If you would like a firmer salve, you can add in the bees wax, you would want to add it and do tests of cooling a small amount on a spoon to see how firm it will be. It is up to you, and the resin, how firm the salve will be. Pour into containers, and allow to cool. These always make great gifts for cyclists or hikers and ramblers 🙂

If you don’t have Pine resin available or you don’t want to bother with the hassle of collecting (or you don’t want icky tree bits in your resin) you can use essential oils to make an easy salve.

Pine Essential Oil Salve

  • 20-30 drops Pine essential oil
  • 1/2 ounce Bees wax, granulated or grated
  • 1/2 ounce of Oil (any vegetable oil)

Heat oil in double boiler, and slowly add in bees wax until it is melted and combined, remove from heat and hand stir in essential oils, pour into containers and allow to cool. This like the other salves is great for on the go applications for pain and wounds.

For a quick cheater version, you can use 2 ounces of any solid at room temperature oil and 10-20 drops of pine essential oils. Add the oils drop by drop as you whip the oil until it becomes creamy and like body butter.

Since it is such a great antibacterial, pine resin has been used for throat complaints for ages, an old recipe you see floating around a lot is for throat lozenges and cough syrups.

Pine Pitch Throat Sticks

  • 3 cups filtered water
  • 5 pounds sugar
  • 5 drops of pine tar tincture (the one mentioned above)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon Wintergreen essential oil (133 drops)
  • Good sturdy pot
  • Accurate thermometer (preferably a candy thermometer)

Combine water and sugar, and boil to the hard crack stage. Once it reaches hard crack remove from heat and spread on a greased cake pan or cookie sheet (if you don’t care if it warps put it in the fridge first to cool it), or if you are lucky enough to have one on a marble slab. As it cools add in the drops of tincture and wintergreen, you will want to mix this with your hands as much as possible, pulling and stretching the sugar as it cools to make sure everything is evenly distributed and well mixed. This is sometimes easier to do if you have someone help you with this. Once fairly cool cut and roll into sausages about 1/4 to half an inch in diameter and cut into half inch sticks, or inch long sticks if you like, and allow to cool. You can also roll, or dust, these in corn starch to prevent sticking and store them in a jar until needed. These are wonderful for sore throats, especially the ones that are very painful to swallow due to infection.

Pine Tar Cough Syrup

  • 1 cup Honey (local wildflower honey is the best choice!)
  • 2 tablespoons pine tar tincture

Blend well, and dose is 1 teaspoon three times a day for sore throats and cough.

Tea, one of the more simple ways of using pine is easy to prepare and use as a gargle, drink or even to add to a bath. And since pine is pretty much everywhere, you should always have a handy supply of vitamin C at your finger tips even in very urban areas. So next cold and flu season, you are prepared since vitamin C and A are everywhere!

Pine Needle Tea

  • 2 teaspoons of Pine Needles (fresh or dried)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water

Steep for 4-10 minutes in a covered teapot or halve the amount (8 ounces water and 2 1/4 teaspoons) for an individual cup (Remember cover that teacup! You will lose all those oils that make this worth making int he steam if you don’t). If you want you can up this to 4 teaspoons (or 2 teaspoons per 8 oz of water) but I don’t suggest exceeding that. This is a great tea for stress or pain, or just to warm you and your joints up on a cold morning. It is also a great gargle for sore throats as well. For the best species to make tea with, it seems the general consensus is the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is the best sort of pine for teas, and there are some pre-packaged forms of this (in pills, teas, and dried leaf forms) if you don’t have this species locally, though most pines will do just fine.

Remember if you are not sure of the species, which you should try to avoid this, unless in say a super desperation situation, and the tea smells too furniture polish-y add more water and only use small amounts of the needles. I also find that using fresh or dried needles if they are whole a rough chop is sometimes needed before using them. If it is really off-putting you probably should find a different tree.

Pine Bath Tea

  • 2 tablespoons of Pine needles (dried or fresh)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water

For this one the stronger the smell the better, steep for 10 minutes and add to bath. Soak for 20 minutes and enjoy the wonderful smell.

Pine Epsom Salt Soak

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 5-15 drops Pine essential oils
  • optional: any additional oils for any additional properties needed

Mix well, make sure you don’t have any lumps of oils, and store in a water tight container. Add about a cup full to a hot bath, and soak for about 20 minutes. Also you can include the previously mentioned herbs, or anything you thing would smell great with this to enhance the healing nature of the bath.

Holiday Epsom Salt Soak

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 10 drops Pine essential oil
  • 5 drops Orange essential oil (Sweet Orange or Bergamot would also work)
  • 5 drops Clove essential oil
  • 5 drops Cinnamon essential oil
  • optional: 5 drops Nutmeg essential oil

Mix well and store in watertight container. This is another great gift for the holidays or for relaxing during that stressful time of year. Gifts and a way to relax, told you pine was a great multitasker! 🙂

Remember everyone is different so make sure you do your own trials to see what works for you, and if you have any pine pollen allergies this might not be a remedy for you, do a small skin test before trying any of these remedies if you have that allergy. Make sure you check things like WebMD for interactions, and the like. And as always if you are ever in doubt, about anything at all, ask a professional!


Pepper, The King of Spices

Migraines, migraines, migraines! Ugh, they sure slow me down but, never stop me 🙂 Luckily, there is black pepper to help with migraines, and it is great for other uses with a long, long history behind it.

I am sure if you went to an American public school that you learned that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, back in 1492, and he did so to find Spices. (If you didn’t I am sure you got a different story, and possibly more, or less, accurate depending on where you are.) Spices were that mystical substance found in the “East,” that were used to cover up rancid meat. Since apparently our “crude” European ancestors didn’t care if their food was off as long as it was coated in spices. Every country must have it’s creation myth, and this is the one taught here. ‘Murica!

Depiction of actual historical event, brought to you by American Public Schooling

But in all seriousness, spices are important. Important enough to attempt dangerous voyages, or commit horrible crimes upon the native owners of the fabled spice plants. I am looking at you VOC. Spices may mask some of the early stages of food turning rotten, but would not cover them all once it has turned, or make it alright to eat without severe consequences later. Also rotted food is gross, really gross. (Which if that stuff is your fancy, interesting stuff is being learned on disgust now and why we have it) Generally this myth about spices is not believed by actual historians, so while they weren’t used to make gross, inedible things edible, it did make edible things a lot more exciting. In the immortal words of Emeril, they let you kick food up a notch. BAM! It was that excitement of the palate, the way they activate the senses, and rarity, that made spices so desirable. Spices make the meal, it adds complexity, depth, and helps us avoid the monotony of blandness. Even just adding salt and pepper can take a meal from meh, to wow! But we, as a culture, hardly ever notice it as we dump massive amounts of both on our food, before even tasting it.

Spices usually traveled great distances, and because of this commanded great prices, and were first used in small amounts. Sometimes used as precious medicine, and many of them were, even if they were not necessarily used in the right way all of the time. Of course some of them weren’t medicinal, or magical, but were still used as medicine since rare things are often claimed to have powers to add to its price. Also used in cooking, but sparingly and it makes the dishes from Richard II’s kitchen more luxurious when you realize that a small piece of ginger was not only crazy expensive so only nobility could afford it but it made it all the way to England, over possibly months or even years. A lot of these spices that traveled far and were known in the historical eras dried easily and were easy to transport. Some of the most important were clovesginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, in later years nutmeg, and of course black pepper. Black pepper and cloves take the distinction of being the oldest traded, and most important of them all.

Pepper, most well known in its hard, small, bead-like black pepper form, is made from the berries of the Piper nigrum vine. This vine that grows native in India, but is a global crop now, and it is the little berries that are harvested to make what we know and recognize as peppercorns. The berries (drupes to be precise, but I will use berries since most people understand what berries are 🙂 ) hang in long clusters, and turn redish orange when ripe. They are sort of like harder, larger seeded grapes, or coffee berries.


Hard to believe those shriveled little black things we know, started life like this

Harvesting at various stages of ripeness, and its preservation method, determines the color of the end product. The vines are quite beautiful, and they like to grow in tropical areas where there are lots of trees and things to support its vine-y growth. Since pepper and cloves were so easy to transport, they were some of the first spices to travel and make it over great distances. Pepper was once the sign of great wealth, and was extremely expensive, hence its epitaphs of the King of Spices, or the Master Spice. Even thought its price has diminished to allow it to be more accessible, it is still the most used and most traded spice in the world. It has even kept its name Black Gold, though it now shares that moniker with crude oil.

“Wait!? Pepper!? That common thing that we pay as little attention to as salt? That is on every table, be it fast food or fancy. That pepper was crazy expensive?!?” You are probably thinking to yourself.

You betcha.

It was not only expensive, it was used as a form of money it was so precious. Many sayings come from this use of pepper, like in England  “peppercorn rent” came to be used for a token payment, or for extremely discounted rents. The Dutch phrase “peperduur” translates to “as expensive as peppercorns.” In the Middle Ages pepper was used to pay dowries, and even taxes. Now we have pepper everywhere, to the point we expect it and take it, and its low price, for granted. People purchase and use pre-ground pepper which is dry and bland, never getting to experience the complexity of white, or green pepper. Or the wonderful taste of black pepper when freshly crushed. Next to water and salt (which we really under appreciate), black pepper is the most common ingredient in cooking. But, considering we have used pepper since 1000 BCE, it is sort of easy to see how it may have become common, and lost its luster and air of exoticism. Americans consume about .25 lbs (.11 kg) a year and Tunisia is the highest consumption at .5 lbs (.23 kg) a year, and most of it is the most common black pepper.

Pepper has a long history with humans, it has been around since at least 2000 BCE in India where it has been known to have been used by Indian cooking for generations. It was found dried and stuffed into the nostrils of Ramses II, most likely placed there during the embalming of his body. Pepper is native to India but only in a very small place in the region of Kerala, and pepper had to travel great distances to get to Egypt. It is still not known exactly how pepper got to Egypt from India, since there is no documentation of it prior to 600 BCE. The most likely suspect would be by dhow, a type of boat that has plied the seas between Africa, the Middle East and India for longer than humans have documentation for, leading to a lot of debate on how early they could have been used just in general. Using the cycle of the Monsoon winds, as is done now, it would have been fairly easy journey from India to the Middle East or the Horn of Africa with spices for trade. After the Kon-Tiki, it is very plausible that these trips were going on for many years before someone happened to write it down. This trip is still made today by the same type of boats, and it is an easier route than the over land, later known as the Silk Road.

By about 400 BCE Greece was very familiar with black pepper, even if they could not always afford, or find it. They first called black pepper peperi. Black pepper was not as popular as Long Pepper, in Greece and was not a huge feature in their foods. The Romans later caught on to pepper and called it piper. Once Rome conquered Egypt and a sea route to Malabar was possible, and as it became more available Romans grew to use black pepper more frequently in their cuisine. In fact, they almost became pepper fanatics. Pliny the Elder complained that vast amounts of Rome’s income was flowing to the East. Brennus, the original Hells Angel, after laying siege to Rome demanded as ransom for the city 1000’s of pounds of gold and silver, and 3,000 pounds of peppercorns. Vae victis indeed.

Pepper traveled more and more widely and gained popularity in every country it traveled to. Up to the Middle Ages, all black pepper in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa came from Malabar. As Europe grew a taste for pepper its popularity there quickly increased. There is folklore that Indian monks used them for energy, and the term pepper came to mean energy or energetic, and it is where the term “pep” came from. Like with Tea, when it was scare and valuable, many people kept their precious pepper supply under lock and key. People considered poor were the ones with “no pepper” and in Germany a term for the rich was “pepper sacks.” Pepper is what made the wealth of the merchants of Venice, and was what helped to drive the Age of Exploration. Pepper was one of  the spices people sought to find a direct trade route to that started all those expeditions. If you were a merchant in Venice one of the ways to bribe a tax collector was with a pound of pepper. The oldest guild in London is the Guild of Pepperers, started in 1328 CE. Soldiers were given it as payment after battle, and when a wreck of a boat originating from England dating to about 1545 CE was found, all the sailors bodies recovered were found to have peppercorns on them. Not only was pepper wealth, it was easily portable wealth, which made it easy to carry during travel or trade. It was so highly prized, along with salt that you have fantastic items like the Cellini Salt Cellar being made. Which pretty much screams luxury at you, telling you how highly regarded pepper was, displayed in a golden and enameled chest next to a possible Earth goddess who faces her counterpart the Sea god and his boat of salt.


The very definition of 16th Century table bling

If you have ever been to a spice store, you know there are more types of pepper than just black. And to make things more confusing there are different types of black pepper. So it is important to understand what is out there, what it is, and what is important for cooking and/or medicine.


6 of the different types of peppers. Red (orange) pepper is not shown

All of the below listed versions are made from Piper nigrum, which produces most of the well known peppers.

Red Peppercorns – (not to be confused with Pink (Rose) Peppercorns) these are pickled in brine or vinegar, and sometimes called orange pepper. These are not imported into many countries, and if they are, they are pretty expensive. Maybe I will get to try them eventually. The taste of these is said to be more mellow and similar to dried Tellicherry black pepper.

Green Peppercorns  much more affordable, than Red, but still expensive due to the amount of processing and all that work gives a small yield. These are made from the unripe berries from the pepper vine. They are then sometimes treated with chemicals to preserve their color and freeze dried, dehydrated, or canned. A more traditional processing means they are pickled in brine or vinegar. If you are making peppercorn sauce, this is the version traditionally required to make it.

White Peppercorns this is actually just the seed of the pepper berry with the fleshy outer coating removed. The berries are soaked in water until the outer fruit loosens around the seeds. They are then rubbed to rid them of the remaining fruit and dried. White pepper is often used in white sauces, to prevent marring the color where black pepper would stand out. White pepper since it lacks the fruit, does have a slightly different taste than black pepper since it retains its fruit coating. When I lived in Australia, this was commonly used in restaurants as the pre-ground pepper on the tables. I wonder if that is still done there? Muntok white pepper is grown in Indonesia, and generally hand harvested, soaked, and hand processed as well as sun-dried. It is the most common and best known white pepper, and is generally harvested well after ripening and then processed. It has a mild heat and almost wine flavor, it goes best with poultry, cream, and shellfish. Sarawak white pepper is from Malaysia and has more licorice or musk-like flavors, and is considered the better white pepper of the two. It is processed mostly the same as Muntok, except they are soaked in running water sometimes in jute bags which improves the taste. Again this is great for softer dishes and recommended for fish as well as all the things Muntok goes well with. Juila Child always said you should always use white pepper in a béchamel sauce to prevent unsightly specks.

Black Peppercorns – the still unripe berries are harvested and cooked briefly in hot water, they are then dried usually in the sun since the heat helps to change the color as well as dry the berries. These are what most of you fill your pepper mill with, or if you buy the pre-ground stuff your pepper shaker.  Tellicherry (which is a city in Kerala) black pepper is from the same vine as other black peppers, but it is allowed to stay on the vine longer until it is just about to ripen before it is harvested, giving it a more fruity or floral characteristic. Malabar peppercorns are from the famed Malabar coast in Kerala, and are basically the most well known black pepper taste, it is more bitter than Tellicherry more citrus and pine flavors. Black pepper can be used in anything from ice cream. the crust of your finely grilled steak, or just a sprinkle on your mashed potatoes. There are other types than just the two listed, usually based on what country they are grown in. Black pepper is the most valuable medicinally, since they still contain the black peppercorn oil, and this is the oil used for medicinal purposes.

ProTip: It is highly suggested that when buying a pepper mill one should invest in preferably of plastic or metal models, since wooden ones can actually suck the oil from the berries causing them to be less fragrant and potent over time. I have to admit though I have a wooden one myself that I don’t have the heart to get rid of since it was a gift, and since I use pepper a lot I haven’t noticed that much degradation.

Pepper has some sometimes impostors, useful cousins, and replacements – if pepper isn’t available. They have their own uses, and names should be noted if you are looking for medicinal items, to prevent confusion, since these do not have the same characteristics as black pepper and shouldn’t be substituted in medicinal preparations.

All of the below listed plants carry a common name of pepper, but are a different species from black pepper.

Long Pepper – made famous more recently by Sam Adams if you are a beer nerd, since it was used along with grains of paradise in a beer he made that brought back some old fashioned beer spices. Long pepper is usually tied (or confused) with black pepper and seems to have been used interchangeably or preferred over black pepper for its similar taste but slightly hotter kick than normal black pepper

Grains of Paradise – also made famous with long pepper in Sam Adam’s beers, this is not actual of the same genus as black pepper. This plant is more closely related to ginger and is sometimes known as African pepper, or alligator pepper. While it has a peppery flavor the chemicals in it are more closely related to the same chemicals produced by cardamom. Common in West and North African cooking, it is used in brewing as well as flavoring gin and sometimes akavit (a Norwegian alcohol).

Pink (Rose) Pepper – this can be one of two species Schinus terebinthifolus or Schinus molle, both of these are native to South America and is generally the pink-red peppercorns you can buy in peppercorn blends. This is a great culinary spice and I highly recommend keeping a black pepper, and a black, green, pink, and white peppercorn mix on hand for cooking. I love the taste of this mix on eggs the most. Pink peppercorns are antiseptic, and good for wounds but we will not be discussing its uses in depth in this post.

Jamaican Pepper – (aka allspice) I am including this one here since it was thought, when first discovered by Europeans, to be black pepper or some near relative of it. It is used in a variety of cuisines in savory and sweet dishes. Its current name allspice comes from its flavor which the English when first experiencing it thought it smelled of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg combined.

Adulteration & Substitutions

Peppers have been adulterated for pretty much as long as people were figuring out how to cheat others. Sometimes dried juniper berries were used, sometimes papaya seeds, which sounds a bit better than wooden faux nutmegs. If it was already ground, there are horror stories of people using dust from floor sweepings to adulterate pepper.

Some places use pepper substitutes because pepper either does not grow there, or it is too expensive to import. The desire to use plants that have this spicy effect to jazz up food, almost seems to be universal.It should also be noted that chilies are called peppers some places but are completely different, we will go over them in the future.

Because I love cooking, and these are all interesting substitutes. Not to mention possibly useful to people who have a pepper allergy. So here are some alternatives to pepper:

Why are they called corns though? 

They aren’t made of corn! Just like corned beef, or corned gunpowder, corn is a term for any small seed-like item that originates from Old English, and possibly proto-German. So since pepper berries once dried look like small seeds or beads, corn was applied to them and the term stuck.

So, OK, pepper is awesome, but also way more complicated than it looks.

How do you use it medicinally?

In the Ayurvedic tradition it was used to treat migraines, using a paste made from crushed black pepper cooked in milk and then smeared on the forehead. Ayurveda used it as a digestive, and for gastrointestinal distress, which the Europeans found the same uses for it too. It is also great for colds, since it increases mucus flow and can help get things moving again. It was also used in other traditions as a skin treatment to relieve hives and other skin issues. Black pepper is a natural antiseptic and is actually a great source of vitamin C. It should help to strengthen the immune system and is why its included in the turmeric tea recipe. You can always add a pinch of pepper to your turmeric teas, or ginger teas to help with pain and inflammation.

Black pepper has analgesic properties as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodics, its warming effect on the skin also feels lovely on sore achy muscles. Black pepper oils carry a lot of the same chemicals we have discussed with previous plants, camphene, α-pinene, linalool and other sesquiterpines are present which account for its medicinal versatility. It can also irritate the gut in larger doses, aiding with slow digestion or constipation, but small amounts help with digestion and “prevent wind.”

Pepper Oil for Sore Muscles and Migraines

  • 1 oz Carrier oils (any good quality oil will do)
  • 15-20 drops Black Pepper essential oil

Mix well, store in a dark bottle. Massage into a spasmed muscle, or just exhausted ones after a workout. It works great for areas of neurological pain, and massaged into the temples or a spasmed neck to ease the pain of migraines. The warmth and drawing blood to the area helps heal muscles, as well as ease pain. It works great for inflamed joints as well. You can always reduce the amount of pepper to 10 drops and include 10 drops of other oils like eucalyptus, lavender, copaiba, juniper, clary sage, clove, ginger, fennel and frankincense not to mention many others. Most scents smell nice with pepper (a good bet for a mix is floral or citrus) but will provide additional relief.

Black pepper is also good in a salve, which makes it easy to use on the go. So these are great to keep in your gym bag, or near where you work out.

Black Pepper Salve

  • 1/3 cup Oil (Sunflower, Almond, Apricot, just should be of vegetable origin)
  • 1/3 ounce Bees Wax, granulated, or grated
  • 5-10 drops of Black pepper oil

Heat oil in a double boiler, and slowly add bees wax. Stir constantly until fully melted and everything is combined. Remove from heat, and slowly stir in, by hand, the essential oils. Pour into small, preferably glass, seal-able containers and store in a cool dry place. This is great for arthritic pains, rheumatoid or otherwise, and good for muscle pains on the go.

You can always make the cheater version by whipping 2 oz of solid at room temperature coconut oil in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, and adding 10-20 drops of the black pepper essential oils. You can also make a chai spice version which smells fantastic as well as helps with pain, and with the addition of raw honey is good wound healing and for your skin too.

Chai Raw Honey Salve

  • 1/3 cup Oil (same as above, just make sure it is good quality)
  • 1/3 ounce of Bees Wax
  • 1/3 ounce Raw Honey
  • 2-3 drops ginger
  • 2-3 drops cloves (start with 2 and add more if you like since clove can over power things)
  • 2-3 drops of nutmeg
  • 3-5 drops cardamom
  • 3-5 drops cinnamon
  • 2-3 drops black pepper

First heat oil in a double boiler, and slowly add bees wax, like above then add raw honey. Stir mixture until fully melted and all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Remove from heat and stir in by hand the essential oils. Pour into small, preferably glass, seal-able containers and store in a cool dry place. This is a great salve for painful cracked skin to help it heal, to put on a wound before bandaging, and is great massaging into painful joints and muscles. Also a great gift idea!

Home made chai tea is also fantastic, and there is a great recipe here you should definitely try, and I have more fast and loose recipe I like to use.

Chai Tea from Scratch

  • 1/2 inch to inch piece of ginger peeled and crushed
  • 2-5 peppercorns, cracked but not ground to powder (start small and increase to get it to where you like)
  • 2 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
  • 2-3 cloves, slightly crushed
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2/3 cup milk (or milk substitute, coconut cream goes well here, go for the full fat options if you are bold)
  • 1 teaspoon of Black tea (others are fine, and if you don’t have loose 1 teabag will do, Earl Grey will work in a pinch too)
  • Honey or sugar to taste

You don’t want the ingredients completely broken apart but crushed enough to allow maximum surface area for the flavor to disperse into the liquids. Throw it all in a saucepan cold, let it heat up slowly until just before the boil, making sure to stir or swirl the pan constantly. Strain and serve. This is great on a cold morning to warm the hands and ease stiffness and pain. But frankly it is good any time, and well worth the effort 🙂

Black pepper oil is also good, in my opinion, rubbed directly on the skin. Just a drop or two into one of my painful spasmed muscles brings soothing warmth as well as a smell that helps keep me alert. I enjoy it the most massaged straight, with no carrier oils, into my neck and spasms in my face when migraines are an issue. Which if you have sensitive skin this may not be the application method for you. I also don’t recommend using this near bed time as I have found the smell isn’t so great when you are trying to sleep. It is also good for the hair and a drop with rosemary on the hairbrush and brushed into the hair smells quite nice.

If you know anything about Italian food, or if you are an Anthony Bourdain fan, you probably have heard of Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. A dish that’s deceptive simplicity can highlight ingredients, or mistakes. You can never go wrong with Lidia’s recipes so I have provided her’s. This is my sort of simple comfort food, and reminds me of home since Mom would make this often. It also is a good way to get a good dose of pepper in your diet that isn’t a beverage.

Lidia’s Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

  • 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, or more to taste
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • salt for the pasta water
  • 1½ cups Pecorino-Romano, freshly grated, or more to taste 

Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil. 

Grind the peppercorns very coarsely, preferably crushing them in a mortar with a pestle or in a spice grinder. 

Warm up a big bowl for mixing and serving the pasta-use some of the pasta water to heat the bowl, if you like. 

Cook the spaghetti until al dente. Quickly lift it from the pot with tongs, let it drain for an instant then drop it into the warm bowl. 

Immediately scatter a cup of the grated cheese and most of the ground pepper on the pasta and toss in quickly. As you mix, sprinkle over spoonfuls of hot water from the cooking pot to moisten and amalgamate the pasta and condiments-add more pepper or cheese to taste. 

Serve right away while the spaghetti is very hot.

There are also some great recipes for Black Pepper Ice Cream, or a more advanced Black Pepper and Strawberry Swirl Ice Cream you should try.

All this time that little humble pepper shaker on your table has held all of these secrets, you may not take it for granted the next time you shake, or now hopefully grind, it.

Remember, do your own research and educate yourself before trying anything, and everybody’s body is different. Make sure this won’t have interactions with your medications by checking sites like WebMD, and if you have any doubts at all if this is for you, ask a professional! 



Botox? Isn’t That Just For Wrinkles?

Botox, I am sure everyone has heard of this. I get Botox injections for therapeutic reasons, to treat my migraines. But often when I mention this to someone I get the response of “But you are so young?” or “But you don’t have wrinkles?” Which while slightly amusing, shows that the most well known uses of Botox are for cosmetic and not therapeutic reasons. I have also been asked by other people who suffer from migraines themselves how well this works, so I figure why not throw some light on this well-known, but not well understood by most of the populace, treatment.

When you hear about Botox, it is mostly tied with famous for movie stars, known for making them look like slightly puffy, wooden people since their faces are so paralyzed with Botox they can’t form normal expressions. Some are more honest about it. Like Joan or Dolly, who are open about their use of not only Botox but all things plastic surgery. Which I respect that they are open to saying basically, “Yeah, none of this is natural but I have to perform so it sort of is required with the gig.” Also, I mean come on, if they lied we would know.

Am I smiling? I can’t tell if I’m smiling…

Then you have the ones that think nobody notices that they had a lot of work done, especially with Botox.

Yikes. This is what happens when you can’t feel your face, not good.

But Botox was not originally invented to help celebs not have sweaty armpits at events like the rest of us normal people, or to make them not look, as Joan put it, Shar peis. It was noted as a possible way to help instead of harm people pretty much from its first moment of “discovery.”

So what IS Botox? Most people have heard of it but few really know what it is. Botox is the brand name for a “safely” inject-able form of the botulinum toxin, which causes botulism. You may have heard of botulism, it is why there is a lot of suspicion around home-canned goods as well as why you want to avoid dented cans if you purchase canned goods. This neurotoxin, which means it only has an affect on the nervous system, and causes muscle paralysis which is why it is so highly sought by movie stars. The extreme paralysis makes wrinkles from facial expressions impossible, thus giving the illusion of youth, emphasis on illusion.

Botulinum toxin was first discovered in Germany and information was published on it between 1817 – 1822 by Justinius Kerner, the poet and medical writer. He called it “sausage poison” or “fatty poison” due to it being found generally in poorly prepared sausages, or fatty meats, that caused deaths frequently in his time. He was the first one to notice that this paralytic neurotoxin might have a therapeutic use, despite its deadly nature. He also coined the name botulism, from the Latin botulus meaning “sausage,” since sausages are what were generally poisoning people due to poor hygiene in some rural production. Which they do look like little fat sausages…

little, fat, murderous sausages.

In 1895 it was a Belgian bacteriologist, Emile van Ermengem, who isolated the bacteria that causes botulism from a piece of fatty smoked ham that had poisoned thirty four people at a funeral dinner. He named it Colstridum botulinum, since it looked very sausage like under the microscope. Luckily, it is now known that to kill the bacteria food must be heated to at least 185 °F (or 85 °C) for 5 minutes or more to kill the bacteria. Which is why during canning processes the cans, once sealed, are heated to kill off bacteria. There are other ways of getting infected with the bacteria that causes botulism, it can be contracted through inhalation, wounds (most commonly in people that inject drugs on the street), it even lives in certain soils. But ingestion was the most usual way to become infected with this deadly bacterium for many years of human history. Now death is much less common with modern antibiotics, as long as treatment is sought soon enough. Other animals can be affected by this bacterium, and it is well known to affect bird species. Botulism is also a reason why honey is not recommended for children under the age of 1, since spores of the bacteria can live in honey and cause floppy baby syndrome.

Then in 1928 P. Tessmer Snipe and Hermann Sommer first purified the toxin, that means they were able to isolate the toxin from all the other stuff produced by the bacteria. Which means, like being able to isolate penicillin, this was now a manufacturer-able toxin. Then with the purified toxin another group of scientists, Arnold Burgen’s group, working in 1949 was able to find that the botulinum toxin was blocking neuromuscular signals by preventing or decreasing acetylcholine release. That means that it is effectively muting the signals from your nerves telling your muscles to move, and that isn’t just the muscles that move your body (the skeletal muscles) but all of them. That means the ones that make you breathe, swallow, blink, make your heart beat, all that involuntary stuff your body does without thinking. Which is really bad news, since your whole body functions off the movement of muscles, and all that becoming impossible. A pretty scary thought right?

“And people willingly inject themselves with this?!?!?” you must be saying.

Sure do. There are a few different types of toxins produced by the C. botulinum, and they are labeled A through H, and it is the Botulinum toxin type A that is known as Botox (or sometimes as Dysport or Xeomin) that is the most commonly used for therapeutic and cosmetic purposes. There is another form available MyoBloc made from type B that seems to be less commonly used, but still for both therapy and cosmetic reasons.

And this is what that Botulinum toxin type A looks like

It was in the 70’s, more precisely 1973, that an opthamologist (eye doctor) Alan Scott and Edward Schantz, in San Francisco, started doing experiments with the type A toxin on monkeys, and eventually developed a treatment method for humans. In 1980 the first human was injected with the toxin to treat crossed eyes and later was used to treat uncontrollable blinking. In 1993 it was used to treat spasms of the lower esophageal sphincter, and in 1994 it was shown to inhibit excessive sweating (something later made famous by celebs not wanting to sweat at events we mentioned earlier). There were many other uses that it was found to be helpful with both cosmetic and therapeutic, but it was not until October of 2010 that the FDA approved the use of Botox to treat chronic migraines.

And there was much rejoicing.

Speaking as a chronic migraine sufferer, Botox is just about the coolest thing out there. I have had so many different procedures to treat my migraines, and nothing gives the results that Botox does. For me I have gotten 3 months, and sometimes a bit more, of migraine free life. Which is a glorious thing, after you have spent months and months having maybe a handful of days where you didn’t have a migraine. It doesn’t require as often an application (at least for me) as corticosteroids, and I find the relief levels are much greater and my use of prescribed medications, or other medications, significantly reduced. In some ways this was my “miracle drug” for me. (Now, everyone is different so your results may be different, and Botox could even be not the best thing for you. Always discuss any treatment decisions with your doctor.)

But this is not something to be treated lightly, Botox can have significant side effects. Listed in depth on the medication guide and product information on Allergan’s (the maker of Botox) site for information on Botox for migraines. Reading these may scare you off the treatment all together, which in some ways is a good thing. It seems to be all too commonly used for cosmetic purposes, since most people think it is “safe” and won’t cause any issues. While it is a diluted form of the toxin, and has been ruled safe to use by the FDA that does NOT mean that you can just go to any old place and get it injected. There are a lot of places that offer Botox cosmetic injections, which if done improperly you can end up looking a lot worse than Madonna does. It could cause serious side effects and even death if done wrong and left untreated. So make sure that if you are opting for this treatment that you really need it first of all, and second of all you are getting the injections from a physician and not some lady in a salon who doesn’t even have a GED. This is a neurotoxin, that killed 1000’s before we were able to identify it. Toxin’s are not good for you, and you only want to go this route if you have to. Seriously, be smart about this stuff. You wouldn’t go up and piss off a rattlesnake just for fun, so don’t let just anybody shoot you up with neurotoxins, ok?

If you do suffer from chronic migraines, this may be your miracle drug too, you should definitely discuss it with your doctor and make sure they aren’t doing this as a first option. Second opinions are always good, but if you have ruled out all other treatments and causes of migraines this may be the best option out there for you.

ProInsuranceTip: One of the big issues I run into is the usual insurance coverage issues, which if you are a chronic pain sufferer you are probably well versed in all the fun things you have to do to get them to approve things. This should be covered under “good” insurance, but may not be. Botox is extremely expensive, so that may be a prohibiting factor in its use for you. See what you can work out with your doctor if you are not covered for it.

Remember, we are all different and some treatments that work for others may not work for you. Make sure you discuss all options with your doctor, and that you both agree that this is the right treatment for you and your symptoms. Educate yourself on it, make sure you know all you can, if you are ever in doubt about any procedure, Botox or otherwise, ask a professional!


Juniper, Not Just for Making Gin

We took a small vacation, it was nice to get away, and just have some fun. Fun was much needed since I have been going through a lot of tests again, and it was nice to be away from all the poking and prodding. Even if it has slowed down my posting rate, it was worth it! We saw Santa Fe, it was beautiful and such a friendly town with a lot of Native American, Spanish and Mexican history, as well as US history. People usually think the East coast of the US will have the oldest structures, but the Southwest is the place to go for old. Especially if you like Native American history, which I do!

And I apologize it took so long to get this out. So since it has been a while, make sure you have some tea and a comfy chair, because this is not gonna be a short read…

Cherry tree with rosaries, Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe

Cherry tree with rosaries, Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe

Ram Petroglyph from Three Rivers National Park

Ram with arrows Petroglyph, Three Rivers National Park

Something I kept noticing, while scrambling around the park looking for the 20,000 petroglyphs they have, and in the little towns that dotted the vast landscape, was juniper. It was everywhere, and they are all over here in Texas too. I have always liked juniper, I love looking at the blue-grey berries (I know, I know, technically they’re cones. But I don’t know anyone that calls them anything but berries. Deal with it.), and they are a fantastic addition to meatloaf (or any meat dish, especially game meat). Seriously, throw some in (3-5), its great. They also smell so good and in Texas, where not many things are green all year round, they are a welcome bit of green life in the gold-brown summers and gold-brown winters.

Juniper “berries” of the Juniperus communis, one of the most common edible species. Notice the deep shade of the berries and the spiked shape of the leaves.

Juniperus ashei in Texas, often confused or called colloquially cedar, notice the difference in the shape of the leaves.

Juniperus ashei in Texas, often confused or called colloquially cedar, notice the difference in the shape of the leaves.

This is a tree that is so ubiquitous they worm their way into almost every culture, but like the thing hidden in plain sight, so much so you may not have noticed or thought about them much. Juniper is a conifer that has different species almost on every continent, it is widely used in medicine, myth, and cooking. The Greeks, first documented it as medicinal, and only later did it come to become a culinary spice. Eaten by early Olympic competitors, they were thought to improve stamina which some are high in sugar and it may have been an early form of use of a sugar rush for quick energy. Dioscorides wrote, that rubbing the crushed berries on genitals before intercourse would prevent conception, it doesn’t but I sure bet it made things smell nicer. Romans used it as a cheaper alternative to pepper or long pepper, since these were imported and therefore far more expensive. Probably why it was also used to adulterate pepper sold in Rome since they are quite a powerful flavor, ranging from sweet to surprisingly bitter. Pliny the Elder even mentions that

“juniper berries, which have the property, to a marvelous degree, of assuming the pungency of pepper.”

He also wrongly asserted that pepper and juniper were pretty similar trees, which if you know your spices pepper grows on vines. But considering he did get it correct that it grew on a plant, he is doing a little better on accuracy than Herodotus with cinnamon.

Cinnamon birds you say? Sounds legit.

Egyptians used juniper as well, possibly imported from Greece, was found in the tomb of the most famous Egyptian king, Tutankhamen. It is mentioned in medical papyri that juniper was good for chest complaints, tapeworms, and as a digestive aid. There are other recipes mentioned in the Egyptian medical writings, there were interesting recipes like juniper mixed with honey and beer as a laxative. Or for a headache combine juniper with frankincense, cumin, and goose fat, boil well, and rub on the head. Whether or not these worked is not mentioned, but there is a strong recommendation to collect the fee prior to providing the cure.

Those from the Scandinavian areas tended to use the wood and the berries for food and medicine, as well as fermented drinks, which we will go over in detail. In Europe it was yet another remedy believed to help with the Black Death, it was used whole or burned (for its purifying smoke) and was yet another herb placed in the bird like plague doctor masks to help ward off the illness. There are also creepy fairy tales about juniper as well as the belief that the hamadryad, Frau Wachholder, that inhabits juniper would assist you with recovering stolen property. This is also another plant that was to have sheltered the holy family in their flight to Egypt, and was used in some areas as Christmas greenery for this reason.

Over in the Americas, Native Americans in many areas had loads of uses for the many types of juniper (and cedar) that grow there. Its inner bark was used as a sweetener, and the berries of different varieties were used to treat everything from the normal sprains, wounds, arthritis, digestive issues and ulcers, to treating the more extreme tuberculosis. They are a great antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, which is why it is so great for chest colds and kidney issues, it also had diuretic properties. Some tribes in South America used the pulverized berries to ward off a parasitic catfish (yes THAT catfish). Back in the north, some tribes used a specific species berries as a starvation food, and some even used certain species barks that they ground into powdery flour and used as starvation food as well. The wood, like in most of the rest of the world, was burned for the smoke to purify, protect humans and animals from disease, and ward off evil spirits. It was also well known as a muscle relaxer and used to not only treat spasms but also ease childbirth since it helps muscles relax and would ensure a safer delivery. Some tribes associate the juniper with youthfulness or immortality since it always seems to remain green, even in the worse droughts.

“Charles Sitting Man, a Cheyenne, said that the Great Spirit has much respect for juniper because it seems to never grow old and remains green the year round. It therefore represented youthfulness, and they accordeingly placed it centrally in many of their holy rites and purification ceremonies. Indians also admired it for the durability of its wood, which they found desirable for lance shafts, bows, and other items, and for the dark red, seemingly dyed-in-blood color of its wood.” – S. Buhner, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers

Early US pharmacology included juniper berries in its pharmacological listings, and there is an old American usage of using it to “force out measles.” This may have actually been a good application of juniper since the berries of some species contain deoxypodohyllotoxin which is an anti-inflammatory, and possibly (not enough studies to say 100% yet) an anti-viral. Sadly though like many other natural remedies it has fallen out of favor as a treatment option in the US, but that does not mean its value as medicine has diminished in any way.

Most people know of juniper through gin, one of my favorite adult beverages, especially a cold gin and tonic with lime on a hot summers day. Gin has a long history, and like other healing “waters” and herbal aperitifs has been around as a drink as well as a medicine for ages. Gin was probably not the first alcoholic beverage made with juniper though, since brewing came long before distillation. Juniper was used in brewing by many Scandinavian peoples, either directly added to the beer as a bittering agent, or the branches used for straining the beer. Juniper is used in sahti, which is a very old type of Finnish ale (though it may go under different names depending on where it is made), is a simple ale to make, and used to be quite common, branches of juniper were used for bitters since hops were not commonly used in brewing then.

After distillation was discovered, gin was able to be produced. Well a version of it, gin started most likely as jenever, which may have started as a digestive or maybe just because people like the taste. Sadly those answers are lost to time, the name eventually gets corrupted into many different forms (or may come from other origins) but we have finally ended up with modern gin. Which requires juniper to be considered gin, and there is distinctions between how it is added, either post distillation, or in a second distillation process. Either way gin is delicious, and has a lovely juniper taste. In the 17th century, a Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius, claimed that he is the father of gin. Even though there are much earlier documentations (back to the 13th century) showing that gin, and jenever, have much older histories than Franciscus claims. A more contemporary reference to Franciscus is a play that would have been performed when he was about 9 years of age, unlikely he was inventing alcoholic beverages at that age. Seeing as how this bogus claim led to a persistence to name him as the Father of Gin incorrectly (for real, it causes some seriously international butthurt), he probably should have stayed with his job of poking around inside people, instead of claiming to invent things like gin, and probably the question mark. Due to gin being inexpensive, and a way to drown ones sorrows in later years gin gained a bad reputation and fell out of popularity for a while, mostly due to Gin Palaces, and its association with the poor and the seedier parts of society. In the time since, it has waxed and waned, as alcohol trends do, and has recently gained a resurgence in popularity.

Now, you can’t go outside and find a juniper tree/bush and just start eating berries, there are about 40-60 species of juniper (depending on who you ask) and there are only certain ones that are safe to consume, which I will list with some of their traditional uses. If you are going to be collecting wild juniper, make sure you are absolutely sure that you know what species you are dealing with. If you are wrong it could end up with some extremely bad consequences ranging from some very uncomfortable bathroom time, to a very painful death. So be smart people, use that (un)common sense!

  • Juniperus communis(aka Common Juniper; includes sub species Juniperus communis montana) Berries are bitter to consume raw and are usually dried first, great for meat, sauce and as a stuffing. Traditionally used to season game due to its strong taste. In traditional medicine they are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and a diuretic, and was used to treat diabetes traditionally, this berry is high in dextrose (d-glucose) and treats low blood sugar quite well, also why it was a famine or starvation food.
  • Juniperus drupacea – (aka Syrian Juniper) While considered edible, I have never had it, this is a threatened species in some areas and thrives in others, and its growth is restricted to the Mediterranean area. It is mostly used now for wood thought it’s berries are still highly prized in the East.
  • Juniperus horizontalis – (aka Creeping Juniper, Creeping Cedar) Berries are roasted, and can be used to make something like coffee, which also could be used to treat kidney issues. The berries like other species are good for stuffing, like in Turkey, and were used like beads when dried. You can also make a tea from the young tips, it was traditionally used for coughs, chest issues and fevers. These could also be used as a steam treatment for the same, or you can use the branches in clothes storage to keep bugs out.
  • Juniperus monosperma (aka One-seed Juniper) Berries were traditionally added to chopped meat, usually game, and then put in a clean deer stomach and roasted (think deer-juniper haggis sort of thing). The berries on their own are fairly bitter and not very tasty to eat. Its roots and leaves were used for their medicinal properties, good for muscle relaxation and reducing inflammation.
  • Juniperus occidentalis – (aka Western Juniper, Sierra Juniper) The berries can be eaten raw or cooked and is rather sweet, it is very nutritious even when dried. It can be ground, mixed with other flours, and made into a type of bread. The tips, or leaves are used to make the tea that contains the muscle relaxant that pregnant women used prior to birthing. This is a most versatile plant (and used almost as much as the J. communis species) since it is an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and used in many traditional medicine preparations.
  • Juniperus phoenicea (aka Phoenicean Juniper, Arâr) This is high in the sesquiterpene thujopsene which is possibly the source of its anti-inflammatory powers. This is most likely the species used by Romans to adulterate black pepper, so it follows the berries are a bit spicier. Best to use this topically if you are able to harvest the berries, or if you purchase an essential oil of it since not enough research has been done on its internal effects and this can become quickly poisonous if ingested in large amounts.
  • Juniperus deppeana(aka Alligator Juniper, Checkerbark Juniper; includes subspecies/varieties J. pachyphlaea, J. patoniana, J. robusta, J. sperryl, J. zacatecensis) No real known medicinal uses but the berries are sweet, and don’t taste too bad they can be dried and ground and added to cakes or made into them or a porridge like substance.
  • Juniperus californica – (aka California Juniper, Desert White Cedar) Berries can be eaten raw or cooked, they have a sweet and dry, and can be pounded and added as a pulp to stuffing or as stuffing on its own in game dishes. The leaves have analgesic properties, as well as muscle relaxing and was used as like other species prior to childbirth to help with delivery. They are also good for hypertension and is a diaphoretic – which causes sweating and means it helps with fevers.
  • Juniperus virginiana – (aka Eastern Red Cedar, Red Cedar, Eastern Juniper, Red Juniper, Pencil Cedar, Aromatic Cedar, Chansha; includes subspecies J. silicicola) Berries are edible raw or cooked, and can be added crushed as a spice to soups and stews, they are rather bitter though and should be used sparingly. There are teas that have been made of the branches, but this species and the subspecies you should avoid doing so unless extremely experienced or directed by a professional herbalist, they can quickly turn toxic.

SPECIES YOU SHOULD ABSOLUTELY AVOID: Juniperus sabina, Juniperus oxycedrus, and most other species, or any unknown species.

So now you are in the know about some juniper species, and to be sure you know the species if you are planting or planning to harvest your own juniper. You can also buy pre-dried juniper and as long as they are sold as edible they should be fine to use in cooking. If you are going to purchase them for medicinal use, make sure you get clarification on exactly which species you are buying to make sure you will get the right properties, as they do vary species to species.

Again, if you are collecting any plant in the wild, be absolutely sure that you know what you are collecting and/or consuming. I haven’t personally done it yet, but I hear dying has a rather hard effect on life, so don’t hasten that transition by not being smart about what you eat. Ok?

/soap box

Now we can get down to how to use juniper, I mentioned earlier that it is great in meatloaves, throw a few (3-5) slightly crushed berries into the next meatloaf you make, you will love it. You will always want to buy or dry your berries whole to preserve their oils and only crush right before using, so all the below recipes you will want to crush the berries right before using them.

As always a tea is a great way to use a plant’s parts as a medicine, and these can be used internally as a beverage, or steam treatment, or externally in compresses. Naturally you would want to opt for the sweeter berries to make teas with, and avoid the more bitter ones (unless you are into that sort of thing ¬_¬ ). You want to again crush these slightly before using, and since berries take longer to steep this will be a slightly more involved process.

Juniper Berry Tea

  • 1-2 teaspoons Juniper berries
  • 4 cups Water, it is important to be cold or room temperature
  • Tea pot
  • Strainer
  • Saucepan

Crush the berries slightly and add to the saucepan covering with the cool water, bring gently to a simmer over low heat and allow to cook like this for about 10-15 minutes, then strain into a teapot and enjoy. Depending on the species you choose this would be a great way to treat inflammation (from colds or otherwise), treat painful spasms, and if you are having digestive or kidney issues. It is also great as a digestive to ease painful gas or cramping. Some of the sweeter berries are just nice to have as tea just because, if this is a more bitter berry you are going with for the medicinal value, try adding honey or some other sweetener to this (a teaspoon at first and then add more as you need) to make the medicine more palatable.

ProTip: If you are using this as a compress, you can reduce the water by half and just soak a cloth or towel in the liquid and apply when warm, but not hot, to the painful or swollen area.

Juniper plays well with others and is an easy addition to make an existing tea more exciting. Green tea goes well, but black can work here too. White is too delicate, in my opinion.

Juniper Berry Tea Blend

  • 1 tablespoon Green Tea (same if you choose black)
  • 2 teaspoons Juniper berries
  • 4 cups Water
  • Honey or other sweetener as desired

This is made almost exactly the same as the above tea, the only change is to add the tea leaves to the teapot prior to straining the berry mixture into it and let it steep for an additional 4-10 minutes. This tea has all beverage uses of above tea as well, but is not recommended for external use. This can be a good way to take juniper if you find you don’t care for the taste of it on it’s own.

ProBranchTip: If you want to try a species that has beneficial components in it’s branches use just the very young tips of the branches the greenest, newest parts of the plant. About a tablespoon to small handful added to a teapot and steeped from 5-10 minutes will make a sufficient tea, and compress liquid. As always, make sure you know the species the rate of toxicity in the branches is much higher than the berries, and their use requires much more caution. This was used to treat asthma in the past (specific to species) and they generally have anti-inflammatory properties good for coughs and chest colds. You can include the tips in with the berries during the slow simmer to make the tea as well.

Something you will see a lot of online is sites touting the benefits of eating gin soaked raisins. Now, I for one am not so sure of this “cure” but I have seen it a lot on forums and on sites dedicated to treating chronic pain. I am fairly sure this is a combination of alcohol (which does have the ability to numb pain, if you have ever seen some drunks fight or fall you will know how powerful it gets the more you take) and possibly the placebo effect. There is depending on the brand you select juniper essential oils in the alcohol, and oils are alcohol soluble so logically this would be the best way to impregnate any dehydrated fruit with a seemingly beneficial substance. Most modern gins don’t contain enough juniper to be considered, in my non medical opinion, efficiently medicinal. If you were to up the oil content, by say adding your own berries to the gin this might be a better route than an off the shelf type. Again I have not tried this yet so I am not sure, and if this has been working for you, great! Keep using it until it doesn’t, just remember this is alcohol – so no pain medications, and be smart about it.

If I was going to attempt this for a basic recipe for a more “berried” gin add berries to gin and allow it to infuse for a few weeks. A ratio of about 1 part slightly crushed berries to 2 parts gin should do it, and let steep for a few weeks, 4-6 would be ideal.

Gin Soaked Fruits

  • 1 cup Dried fruit (raisins, dried apricots, prunes, whatever you prefer)
  • 1-2 cups Juniper Berry Gin (the one listed above, and you want enough to cover the fruit and a bit more, you may need to top up if they fruit absorbs too much)
  • Large mason jar
  • Optional: more juniper berries (slightly crushed)

Add fruit and gin to jar and close tightly, give a shake and then set in an undisturbed dark place. Let sit for at least a week, and you will need to let them soak longer the larger the fruit you use. Remember to eat less if you are using larger fruit, since you will be getting more gin per piece of fruit. After they are good and infused with gin, they can be eaten. The recommended dose seems to be about 8-10 raisins per day, for pain, and there is mention that it takes a while for it to work. If you are using this or try it out let me know, I am planning to try it sometime in the near future when I am not so dependent on medications that don’t mix well with alcohol.

You can also use juniper berries in the previously discussed Four Thieves Vinegar just add about a handful (2-4 tablespoons) of the slightly crushed berries to the mix.

Since we are talking about more adult themed beverages, we will go back to sahti. Brewing a homemade sahti is not only delicious but satisfying, like all home brewing. This is a recipe for Finnish sahti from the Scared and Herbal Healing Beers book (if you don’t own a copy I highly recommend buying it). This is a version from that book that was adapted from a 1901 recipe book, also note this is a full grain version, and is a pretty involved recipe.

Finnish Sahti from Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers

  • 11 pounds Malted barley
  • 1 pound Malted rye
  • 8 gallons water
  • a “fist full” of hops (about 2-4 oz)
  • juniper branches (amnt originally undefined, but depending on species about the same amount as the hops. you can also line your “strainer” with them)
  • yeast

“Moisten malts with cold water, mix, cover and let sit overnight. In the morning add two scoops of hot water to the malt. Boil the remainder of the water and add a scoopful at a time to the malt, mixing well until the mash has the consistency of porridge. Add the remainder of the water and allow the mash to stand for one hour.

Bring the clear portion of the mash to a boil four to six times by alternating between two kettles and adding the porridge at the conclusion of each boil. Mix, allow the grains to settle, and pour off the clear wort and reboil.

[If you want to be extra authentic set up a large cooler with spout, or if you have a barrel with a hole and plug at the bottom, with rye straw that has been rinsed in hot water and juniper branches alternating layers until it is half full] During the final boil prepare [your] container…dump porridge on the straw [and juniper filter] and pour liquid from the final boil on top of it. Let the wort flow through the tap into the fermenting vessel. Pour clean juniper water, made by boiling juniper branches and berries in water, over the porridge, and through the tap. Boil the liquid with hops. When cool add yeast and ferment. [For at least 2 weeks, month is better]

To make juniper berry Sahti, take one-half gallon (2 liters) of cleaned juniper berries per quarter gallon (liter) of liquid, macerate in cold water for 10 hours and use this liquid to moisten the malt. Follow the remainder of the procedures above.”

Juniper essential oil is sold on many sites, and many species are available, I suggest very strongly only using the oils externally unless otherwise directed by a medical professional. You also need to make sure you know what species the oil is made from, this can be a lot easier than harvesting your own berries sometimes and it is a lot easier to carry around for on the go applications. This essential oil is great for treating skin conditions, as well as topical pain relief for swollen muscles, swollen joints, and spasms.

Juniper Massage Oil

  •  1 ounce Carrier oil
  • 10-20 drops Juniper Essential Oil

Mix well and store in a dark bottle, apply directly to painful areas and massage in. You can as always use this as a plain oil or mix with other essential oils (reduce juniper amount to no more than 10, and limit other oils to 10 drops or less) rosemary, clary sage and other oils go well with juniper.

Also you can follow the instructions in the copaiba post for making a salve for this which works great for applying to hands and joints to ease the pain and swelling of rheumatoid arthritis or other swelling or pain issues.

Finally you can’t really talk about juniper berries and not mention its most famously associated recipe. Sauerkraut is actually a great way to get vitamins and minerals that you cant get in other foods. I found this recipe on Real Fermenting and it seems to be the closest to traditional Bavarian sauerkraut I can find. If you know another, please feel free to share in the comments!

Juniper and Caraway Sauerkraut by Real Fermenting

  • 1 Green Cabbage, about 2 lbs
  • 6 Juniper berries
  • 1 teaspoon Caraway seeds
  • 1 tablespoon Salt (Pacific sea salt is listed originally but any salt will do here)

This is a very similar process to the Basic Sauerkraut. I used a slightly smaller cabbage than before. It was a nice looking one, heavy for its volume (juicy), plus I have a little sauerkraut collection going in my fridge so I don’t need too much. Hoping to be able to give some away this weekend.

Grate the cabbage in a food processor and knead it in a wide bowl with the salt. You should knead away until your hands cramp up, and then take a break. Knead some more. You need a good amount of cabbage juice (water from the broken down cabbage cells) in the bottom of the bowl. Once the cabbage is starting to get soft and really giving up the juice, you can pour the whole lot into a wide mouth jar or crock. You just need something with enough room for the sauerkraut plus whatever you are going to use to hold the cabbage under the brine

Stir the the juniper berries and caraway seeds and push down the sauerkraut until the brine comes over all the cabbage. You may need to return to the sauerkraut in a couple of hours to push it down again. Once the sauerkraut is submerged, cover the container with a breathable piece of material and set it somewhere out of the way.

Check on the sauerkraut in about a week and every few days after that. It has only been taking a week or so recently for me, but it has been really hot. Whenever it reaches a sourness that is to your liking, go ahead and put it in the fridge. It’ll keep for months at those cool temperatures.

So as you can see juniper is a really versatile plant, and has loads more uses than I list here. Do your own research and educate yourself on juniper to see how it can improve your life. I can not repeat enough, always be careful and know which species you are using, no one likes to end up dead. Check for interactions on sites like WebMD, and make sure that if you have any doubts, even in the slightest, that you ask a professional!

If you would like to learn more about Native American’s use of Juniper go here.

If you ever want to learn about the Nordic brewing, or ANY brewing really, no one is better than Michael Jackson (not the one you immediately think of, this guy) he is pretty much the Franz Boas of Brewing (and if you get that reference without googling it, you get a cookie! If you didn’t check him out 🙂 ). For an easier, more modern, all grain Sahti go here, for a super packed with information, and pictures, traditional version go here.