Juniper

Sharp needles against hungry mouths

Author: Ulrich Haufe
Author: Ulrich Haufe

Not only good for making gin

The Juniper was one of the first trees to establish itself when reforestation of Central Europe began after the Ice Age. The undemanding plant tolerates lean, sandy, acidic and dry soils. Today it can be found in heathlands, moors, open woods and on rough pastures.

The small, slow-growing conifer bears pointed, prickly needles. The columnar crown is made up of a number of stems. The much-valued wood of the Juniper is used for turnery, but also for smoking fish and meats.

The juniper is dioecious, i.e. there are male and female individuals. So that the wind can do its pollination task, the male and female plants must not be too far away from each other. The fruit, although called Juniper berries, are actually not berries but fleshy, coalesced cones. The maturation time from the flower to the ripe fruit is three years, so the bushes carry both young, green fruit and mature, black-blue "berries" with a frosted appearance.

Birds eat the fruit and excrete the hard seeds in their faeces. The seeds spread in this way require patches of bare soil to germinate and grow. Where large numbers of cattle once grazed on common-land pastures there were always enough patches of bare ground for the seedlings to grow, so that the Juniper was considered a pasture weed. To nowadays achieve natural regeneration in Juniper heaths, the soil has to be mechanically exposed. Today the Juniper is under protection.

Juniper berries are a popular spice that makes food more digestible. But ever since early times their healing powers have also been known. They have diuretic, digestion-stimulating, antiseptic and anti-rheumatic properties and can even be fermented to gin.