I love the dry, open forests that grow around here. Large Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine trees tower above, while grasses and wildflowers sway in the understory. One of my favourite plants of these forests is not a majestic tree or a bright flower, however, but an easily overlooked shrub or small tree – juniper, one of the most widespread conifers in the world.
Junipers (genus Juniperus) are easily recognized by their fleshy, berry-like cones – juniper cones are often simply called juniper “berries.” Juniperus includes 5o to 60 species of slow-growing shrubs and small trees that are found throughout the northern hemisphere. In fact, common juniper (Juniperus communis) has one of the widest distributions of any tree or shrub in the world, growing in North America, Europe, and Asia. Junipers often grow on dry, open, rocky areas such as grasslands, ridges, and open forests. In my university ecology classes, we were taught that juniper is an indicator of a dry site. I love juniper for its prickly, bluish green foliage, twisted trunks and branches, and unexpected blue berries. I always find it a welcome sight to come across a juniper in a forest opening.
Junipers have been used by people around the world for many years. Juniper berries are used to flavour gin, and are also sometimes used as a spice in soups, stews, and dishes, or ground and used as a coffee substitute. Some native peoples of North America cooked juniper berries and mashed them into cakes (probably in conjunction with other berries), which were then dried and stored for winter. Some also used juniper medicinally. Native peoples of my region, for example, made a tea of juniper berries and branches to treat many ailments, including urinary infections, respiratory problems, and heart trouble.
Food and medicine are the most basic ways that humans have used plants. Even today, most of our food is ultimately plant-based, while many of our medicines are derived from chemical compounds originally found in plants. But for many peoples who lived close to the land, plants were not simply resources to be used; they helped the people to live well and maintain their overall well-being. I think that juniper is a good example of this. Many of the groups that used juniper connected it with concepts of protection, purification, and cleansing. Native peoples of my region burned or boiled juniper boughs to deodorize, cleanse, and freshen the air. The strong odour of these boughs was believed to purify the space and protect the inhabitants from illness. Similar beliefs were held in Europe, where the smoke from juniper boughs was believed to protect a newborn baby from being stolen by the fairies or a juniper planted next to the front door was thought to protect the home from witchcraft. In the Middle Ages, people believed that juniper would protect them from the plague and other infectious diseases. Doctors would hold a few juniper berries in their mouths, believing that this would protect them from being infected. Juniper is also used in the traditional Scottish practice of saining, using the smoke from burning juniper to bless and protect a home, often at the time of the new year or in healing.
These uses of juniper are reflections of worlds in which the plant, animal, and human communities were seen to be closely intertwined. After hundreds or even thousands of years of use, juniper developed a host of associations and a place in human culture that went far beyond its simple physical use as food or medicine. It could protect, purify, bless, and heal – a much different relationship than most of us have with juniper (or any other plant) today. In North America today, juniper is probably used as an ornamental shrub more than anything else, and I suspect that few people even recognize it when it grows in the wild.
On a recent visit to a dry forest such as the one I described at the beginning of this post, I saw many wild junipers growing – some large, some small, some with berries, some without. They are beautiful trees, though not as grand or showy as the larger species. The juniper – like every other species in the forest – has its role and place. It grows in a unique niche that no other species occupies. Its berries provide food for many birds. Growing on rocky and gravelly slopes, it can help to prevent erosion. And when our human culture was a more intimate part of the more-than-human ecology, it had its role there as well. Perhaps, one day, it will again.