Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain

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.

Author: defeatingpain

I am a Texan and in 2008 I was struck by an SUV while riding my bicycle, I have had C5-C6 and L4-S1 fused. While the surgery did a lot, I was left with Failed Back Syndrome and CRPS. I refuse to sit by and not have a hand in my own recovery, so, this blog documents my trials with finding natural solutions for chronic pain.

2 thoughts on “Juniper, Not Just for Making Gin

  1. Pingback: Juniperus communis | Find Me A Cure

  2. Pingback: RECIPE: Corn Beef Braised with Red Wine and Juniper Berries — Marquette Turner Luxury Homes

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