Juniper trees and shrubs are some of the most common and widely distributed coniferous plants in the world. They can be found anywhere from North America, though Africa, the Middle East, Asia and even the Arctic circle.
They grow in lowlands and highlands alike, and are impressively hardy plants. Female junipers are also known for producing appetizing-looking, dark blue or black berries alongside their needle-like leaves.
Self-reliant folks are always on the lookout for useful resources, but some warn that juniper berries should never be eaten due to their toxicity. Are juniper berries poisonous?
Some are poisonous, some aren’t. Some species of juniper produce toxic berries, while others do not. All juniper berries contain varying amounts of thujone, an oil that can cause gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea, and even kidney damage when consumed in large quantities.
Certain species contain very little amounts, while others are packed with thujone. It is imperative that positive identification be obtained before eating any juniper berry.
Depending on where you grew up and what you were first told about junipers and their berries you might be surprised to learn that these interesting conifers actually have a long and distinguished history when it comes to human consumption, and an equally infamous one when people run afoul of the wrong plant.
First Things First, It Isn’t Really a Berry
It’s true. That ripe, juicy “berry” you see growing on junipers isn’t really a berry at all. In reality, it is the seed cone produced by female plants among all the various species on earth.
These particular cones feature extremely fleshy scales that have merged together into a spherical shape, yielding an otherwise obviously berry appearance.
For convenience’s sake, we will be referring to the juniper berry as, well, a berry from here on even though it isn’t.
Inside the berry you’ll find seeds just like you would with typical cones from other conifers, and you’ll notice that these berries behave much like true berries, starting out green when they are young and eventually turning into that appealing deep purple or black color when mature.
This process takes about 18 months.
When eaten, the berries are usually described as gritty in texture and being possessed of a plant or pine-like, resinous and slightly citrusy flavor.
But don’t go out looking to pick a handful of delicious juniper berries just yet!
Most of them aren’t that tasty unless they are incorporated into other dishes and, more importantly, if you pick a handful from the wrong species of juniper you might wind up with a trip to the emergency room… or worse.
Some Species of Juniper are Highly Toxic
As mentioned above, it is imperative you obtain a positive identification of the specific species of juniper tree you are dealing with before you risk eating any juniper berry. If you make a mistake, you could become severely ill, or worse.
Thujone causes significant distress for the stomach, intestines and potentially the kidneys, and if you eat the berries growing on the most toxic species, a handful is enough to cause serious problems.
Juniperus sabina and Juniperus oxycedrus are two common and highly toxic varieties of juniper.
You should learn to recognize both based on sight or sample, and if you have any doubt that you might be interacting with them, don’t risk it! The berries, leaves, branches and roots all contain dangerously high levels of the toxic oil.
The Most Common Variety is Non-Toxic (Except in High Doses)
However, I’m happy to report that the most common variety of juniper produces a berry that is safe to eat, containing only trace amounts of thujone.
This species, Juniperus communis, is the most common of all the junipers and produces the stereotypically attractive berry that is the subject of this article.
If you can positively ID this variety, rejoice because the berries are safe to eat as is, even if they aren’t very appetizing.
Other varieties, including Juniperus deppeana, Juniperus phoenicea, Juniperus drupacea and Juniperus californica are also known to produce safe berries, and one variety, californica, yields a berry that is significantly sweeter and more palatable than other varieties.
Note, even though the berries produced by these juniper species are safe to eat, the rest of the plant is not, generally.
Do not consume the leaves or needles, branches or roots of the plant as they all contain elevated levels of thujone.
Also, it is imperative that pregnant or breastfeeding women avoid ingesting any juniper berries, as they are known to cause pregnancy complications such as spontaneous abortion and critical health issues in infants.
Of course, ingestion of large quantities of edible juniper berries will have an adverse effect on your body, due to the compounding of thujone inside the body. Symptoms can range and include:
- Kidney problems
- Abnormal urine smell
It is important to be diligent in your observations because a lot of these problems can happen quickly and need prompt medical attention.
Are Juniper Berries Toxic To Animals?
Juniper bushes are prolific in cities and suburban neighborhoods for their excellent curb appeal.
However, it is important to remember that these berries can be toxic to animals as well. Luckily, most animals will have the proper sense to stay away from these berries.
Cats and Dogs
While Juniper berries are not on the list of abusive substances you can give your domestic pets, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be dangerous.
Juniper berries are not toxic to domestic animals in the sense that they will shut down major organ systems. Much like us, they can eat small amounts without seeing damage to the kidneys and liver.
Dogs in particular have been known to get upset stomachs after eating juniper berries.
Often you’ll find country driveways or lawns decorated with various cedars and juniper bushes. But what happens if your farm animals escape and you find them munching on some juniper berries in your yard?
Cows – They will generally stay away from the berries; However, the berries have been known to cause spontaneous abortion in pregnant cows.
Goats – Goats will eat juniper berries if starving and are generally okay eating them, but try to avoid it since it can alter the chemical composition of their digestive system.
Chickens – Don’t expect them to make a feast out of juniper berries. Oftentimes they will get curious, pluck them off the bush and spit them right back out. There have been no confirmed cases of chickens dying from eating juniper berries.
Juniper “Berries” Have Long Been Used
Most interestingly, the juniper plant, specifically the berry, has a long and distinguished history both culinarily and in medicine. All the way back in the 17th century, Francis Sylvius, a Dutch physician, whipped up what was supposed to be a medicinal tonic made from, you guessed it, juniper berries.
Unfortunately for the beleaguered physician, the masses took to his tonic as a recreational drink versus a restorative medicine, and gin was born. It has been here ever since, created from the fully grown but unripened berries of the juniper.
Gin, love it or hate it, gets its distinctive, pine-like flavor from the juniper berry and gin is actually a diminutive form of the Dutch word for juniper (supposedly: some say it comes from the French word for the plant).
That same bracing flavor makes juniper berries a popular seasoning for traditional dishes prepared with wild game like venison, boar and various wild birds, where it cuts the “gamey-ness” of the quarry and “clears” the flavor.
It also features in several preparations of sauerkraut. Cuisine from northern Italy also famously incorporates dried and ground juniper berries.
Medicinally, various cultures around the world have used juniper berries for a variety of purposes.
Aside from being processed into various rinses, cosmetics and other dermatological processes the dried and ground berries would be incorporated into saves, ointments and lotions for the treatment of wounds or skin elements.
American Indians used them to treat sore throats and other ailments. Whole, ripe berries would be used as an ingredient in teas and other concoctions to reduce exhaustion and improve stamina.
Suffice to say, humans have been utilizing juniper berries safely for a very long time, and you can do the same thing as long as you are cautious to avoid the dangerous species of the plant.
How Can You Tell if a Juniper Berry is Safe To Eat?
If you’re residing in the United States then the majority of juniper berries are safe to eat. Keep in mind that the berries are quite potent, in taste and bitterness, so you’ll probably not shove a handful in your mouth.
The berries have different appearances depending on their maturity, here are some of the characteristics of a berry that can be picked.
They are smooth and round – The modified “cones” will plump up and swell indicating ripeness.
Look for the deep blue color – Sometimes there will be a white- colored coating on the top. Green means that they are immature berries and need more time. Early on in their life, the berries will have ridges all around.
Remember, that these are only guidelines and some species of juniper have different colored berries but blue is the one you’ll come across more often.
If In Doubt, Test It Out
If you’re in a bind and need to eat juniper berries, you can always perform the universal test for potentially poisonous edibles. This isn’t a surefire way to diagnose the edibility of a juniper berry, but it;ll give you an indication.
- Squeeze the berry until a little juice comes out and rub it on your skin. Wait up to 15 minutes to see if there is an external reaction. If not, proceed to the next step.
- Apply the same juice to a small part of your lip and wait another 15 minutes. If you don’t feel a reaction then you can go to step 3.
- Put a berry on your tongue and let it sit in your mouth for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Take it out and wait a half hour. If there is any kind of swelling or pain, don’t continue.
- Finally, chew a single berry and let it sit in your mouth for a few minutes. If nothing happens then you can go ahead and swallow it. Do not eat another one for an hour to see if it does anything to your stomach.
If there is any indication of a problem, don’t continue. If the juniper you’ve tried is edible, try to limit the amount you eat since they will make you sick in large quantities.
Frequently Asked Questions
Dogs and cats can eat the berries but they will get sick if they eat too much. Birds, foxes, and raccoons are all wild habituated animals that eat juniper berries on a regular basis since their digestive systems can handle it.
The Savin juniper produces savin oil which is highly toxic to our bodies. Symptoms for consuming the fleshy cones are stronger and worse than any other juniper.
All juniper berries contain at least trace elements of the toxic oil, thujone, with some species having so little that they are safe to eat while others contain dangerously high levels of the oil. Whether or not a juniper berry is poisonous is almost entirely dependent on which species you are dealing with.
At any rate, you should never eat any part of the plant except the berries, and pregnant or nursing mothers must avoid consuming juniper berries lest they impart dangerous compounds to their babies.
I am not a doctor so this isn’t medical advice, though, so best to check with your doctor before eating any kind of juniper berry.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.
1 thought on “Are Juniper Berries Really Poisonous?”
Southern California High Desert Junipers make an excellent tea. 1/4 cup berries, 2 cups of water, simmered two hours. No sweetener needed. RA pain from stabs of 8 to merely a constant 4 of 10 or less.
I have been using dried and powdered in my version of Merguez sausage. A slight, light flavor, but engaging, and leaves you wanting more.
Added some to a glass jar of extra dry gin. Two days, and now the gin is excellent.
Going to wait two weeks and check my BS, blood sugar, levels. It is said it will drop your A1C. If it does, then prescription medicine be gone.
As is said, be sure of which one you harvest before you use it.
If you find Rose Sage near you, it is great to stuff a chicken with before roasting.