A coniferous evergreen shrub or
rarely a small tree with flexible reddish-brown twigs thickly
covered with needle-like blue-green leaves arranged in whorls of
three. Each needle has a broad white band on the upper side and
is keeled below. The plant is dioecious; the female cones are
green, the male cones yellowish. The three-seeded, berry-like
globose fruits are green at first, then blue-black when ripe in
the second year.
Juniper is found throughout Europe at the edges of woods, in heath and scrub and on moorland, mostly on lime-rich soils. In some countries it is a protected species. It is one of Britain's native conifers; it has a widespread but local and decreasing distribution. Juniper is, however, often grown in parks and gardens and there are now many cultivated varieties. Juniper berries have long been used for medicinal purposes and as a spice. They were believed to resist the plague and cure the bites of snakes. Nowadays they are mostly used for flavouring certain meats, liqueurs and especially gin. The English word gin is derived from an abbreviation of Hollands Geneva as the spirit was first called, which in turn came from the Dutch word gene ver and from Juniperus, the original Latin name for the plant.
The constituents of the berries include a resin (10 per cent), an essential oil (juniper berry oil, 0.5-2 per cent) with pinene and borneol, inositol, a flavonoid glycoside and a bitter compound (juniperin). These give Juniper strong diuretic, tonic, rubefacient, carminative, antiseptic and aromatic properties. The crushed dried berries are used on their own in an infusion or in tea mixtures for dropsy and bladder and kidney disorders, and for rheumatic pain. The wood is used for the same purposes but it is not as potent as the berries.
Juniper must not be taken internally when the kidneys are inflamed or during pregnancy. Long-term use may also damage the kidneys. Juniper is also used externally in compresses and bath preparations to relieve rheumatic and arthritic pain, for wounds and as a tonic.
Flowering time: May to June