Juniper Fact File
Junipers are coniferous trees or shrubs which are native throughout the northern hemisphere, from the Arctic to Africa and the mountains of America. Their hardy and tolerant nature allows them to grow pretty much anywhere and the only thing they require to flourish is good sunlight. There are currently 50-70 known species of Junipers and hundreds more sub-species, all varying in size and shape from tall trees to columnar or low spreading shrubs.
All species of Juniper are evergreen and are able to provide shelter for animals all year round. Their prickly leaves stop them from being grazed, which allows them to thrive. Their ‘leaves’ are needle-like and/or scale-like in different shades of green and blue, depending on their variety – some turn a yellow-brown colour in the winter. Junipers keep their needles for three years before new ones grow to replace the old. All Junipers are cone-bearing and any one plant can be either male or female, but not both. Males shed their pollen in the early spring and the females produce cones that look like berries, which get eaten by birds.
These berry-like cones encase the seed in a bitter tasting fruit that tends to be black, blue, orange or red-brown depending on the variety, with a glossy, wax-like finish. These berries can take up to three years to ripen and have been very useful since prehistoric times – they are usually dried and crushed as a spice to flavour meats, sauces, and stuffings. More often, they are used to flavour gin and beer. In fact, the word ‘gin’ is derived from the French word for Juniper berry. Medicinally, Juniper berries have been used by many cultures as a herbal remedy for urinary infections, to fight typhoid and cholera, cure asthma and sciatica, as a herbal tea to treat diabetes, to induce labour and as a contraceptive. The juniper is also used in essential oils for disinfectants, homeopathy, incense and in ceremonial rituals. The wood of a Juniper can be used as a fuel or to make shelters, utensils and small containers. Today, however, they are mainly grown for their ornamental beauty.
The ‘Juniperus Communis’ is known as the common Juniper and is widespread. This variety is a shrub or small tree and often grows as a low spreading plant 4-6 feet high, with the trunk or stem often being contorted and twisted. ‘Juniperus Squamata’, or ‘Flaky Juniper’, is a shrub reaching 2-10m tall with flaky bark and black berries. This variety is highly valued for its bluish foliage. ‘Juniperus Horizontalis’ (creeping Juniper), is a small shrub only 10-30cm tall which often spreads several metres wide, and has slender shoots and blue-white berries. ‘Juniperus Ashei’, or ‘Ashe Juniper’, is drought tolerant and grows 5-10m tall with green-purple berries. The pollen from this species can cause a severe allergic reaction. These are the most common varieties known but there are many more, each distinguished by their leaf type and berry colour.