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? It depends. 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. Keep reading to get the full story on junipers.
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 ER… 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 and health issues in infants.
Juniper “Berries” Have Long Been Used in Medicine and Food
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.
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.