Wild berry picking in January? Yep, juniper/cedar

judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin
edited November 2020 in Wild Edibles & Medicinals

Surprisingly, one of the most common questions I get when folks find out that I'm a forager and a Permaculture practitioner is about juniper or cedar berries. Where I live, the cedar trees are Juniperus virginiana and we have a lot of juniper as landscaping plants (some have berries). I guess a lot of folks see those beautiful, blue berries and wonder if they are edible. Yes, they are! They are very good, just eaten out of hand - sweet and piney. You can use them in many recipes - especially game. You can make jam. But, my favorite is an infused gin. Just toss a handful in a bottle of vodka and let them infuse... like a tincture. They are crazy high in Vit C and other antioxidants. I've been snacking on them regularly all winter. True vermouth comes from old medicinal herbed wine recipes the monks used to make. And, tonic water was used by the Brits as a quinine treatment against malaria and other viruses. If you drink, what could be more medicinal (and delicious) than home made infused gin in a martini or with tonic? Oh, and a little gin, dill and salt on a salmon fillet, left int he fridge for a while... wow!


  • dottile46
    dottile46 Posts: 437 ✭✭✭
    edited January 2020

    I actually knew a woman with severe leg cramps that drank 4 ounces of tonic water a day as the quinine relieved her leg cramps. Her doctor said his father, who had also been a doctor, had prescribed quinine for years to treat leg cramps. As quinine was no longer available, and not an acceptable practice, he had resorted to advising his patients to drink tonic water.

    *Edited to insert a missing word.

  • Marjory Wildcraft
    Marjory Wildcraft Posts: 1,541 admin

    Ohhh, thanks for posting that about leg cramps and quinine...

  • Gail H
    Gail H Posts: 359 ✭✭✭✭

    A berry that we pick this time of year is wintergreen. (Glautheria procumbens) I just snatch a couple whenever I'm out working in the cold; I've never bothered to make anything with them. It's just such a lark to pick something and eat it on a cold, winter day!

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin

    Me too, when I am home in the mountains - I have a nice little patch of wintergreen!

  • ines871
    ines871 Posts: 1,283 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Only know it from mintlike gum Flavoring, so decided to look this up for some pictures & detailed description https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wintergreen

    "Wintergreen is a group of aromatic plants. The term "wintergreen" once commonly referred to plants that remain green (continue photosynthesis) throughout the winter. The term "evergreen" is now more commonly used for this characteristic. -- the most common generally being the American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Wintergreens in the genus Gaultheria contain an aromatic compound, methyl salicylate.

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin

    The only thing to be aware of about wintergreen is that in some cases, it can cause an extreme and deadly reaction in asthmatics. I'm asthmatic though, and it does not bother me.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,396 admin

    I have three species of juniper where I live. Juniperus virginiana, Juniperus communis and Juniperus horizontalis. The "berry" is actually a fleshy seed cone.

    Juniper is a powerful diuretic and should be avoided during pregnancy and by anyone who has any sort of kidney disease as it may aggravate the condition.

    That being said, juniper has been used medicinally for edema and dropsy (because of its diuretic effect) as well as dyspepsia. They are also an appetite stimulant. Juniper is sometimes used in the treatment of gout to remove uric acid from the system. Berries added to a tea can be useful for respiratory illnesses. The essential oil can be added to liniments and has been shown to have antimicrobial and anti-mycobacterial properties.

    I add juniper to game meats as a seasoning, I've added them to Fire Cider, as @judsoncarroll4 stated, they make a great "gin" infusion in vodka (try adding some other botanicals as well), berries could be added to bitters, they can be added to salt scrubs or just added with other whole herbs to a bath.

    Following is a recipe that uses caribou (for us in the North) but you could substitute any wild game. If you are not into carpaccio you could use the sauce on many other things. Sorry, no amounts are given in this recipe so you have to adjust for taste yourself but I would suggest starting with about 8-10 berries in the cream.

    Caribou Carpaccio with Whisky-Juniper Sauce

    Clean a section of tenderloin or leg muscle and remove all silverskin and connective tissue. Rub thoroughly with a mixture of half salt and half sugar, and add cracked pepper and ground juniper berries to taste. Roll tightly in plastic wrap and set under a heavy weight in the refrigerator for 2 days, turning every 12 hours. Rinse well, cover with rendered fat or rub with oil and freeze solid overnight. Slice thinly with a food processor blade while still frozen, and serve raw. If you are not certain of the health of the animal, smoke the meat instead.

    Whisky-juniper sauce: Simmer juniper berries in 1 cup cream; strain, allow to cool, and whip the cream thickly. Set 1/2 cup of whisky on fire in a metal bowl, and slowly and theatrically pour it into the cream, whisking constantly, with a metal ladle while it is still on fire. Making this sauce is a very showy and attractive process, and it is amazingly tasty on the carpaccio or the smoked meat. 

  • Megan Venturella
    Megan Venturella Posts: 678 ✭✭✭✭

    Great information, thank you! Just to be clear, apart from someone having a random reaction to juniper berries, are there any dangerous look-alikes I need to be aware of?

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin

    All I can attest to is what is in my area. But, different regions have different plants and names for those plants. In the TX hill country, their "cedar" is nothing like the "cedar" that grows here. I believe that juniper is juniper... but cedar may be a colloquial name for more than one plant.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,396 admin


    Taxonomy and common names can be very difficult. As I said I have 3 Juniper species native to my area. But there are many more species of ornamentals that also grow here under a variety of names. Sometimes, Juniper wood is available as finishing lumber for cedar chest or closets and is usually called "Aromatic Cedar". We also have Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) and in coastal areas there is Yellow Cedar aka Yellow Cypress (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis). Both are members of the Cupressaceae family along with Juniper species. In Eastern North America there is another Cedar species, Thuja occidentalis, aka Eastern White Cedar or Arborvitae. But none of these are true Cedars. True Cedars (Cedrus species) are from the Mediterranean and Himalayan regions and are members of the Pinaceae family. Are we confused about Cedars yet? :)

    @Megan Venturella

    If you pinch a juniper berry it will have a very distinctive aroma, very like gin. If it doesn't smell like that it probably isn't juniper. I can't think of another "berry" that grows on an evergreen tree/shrub like juniper. with the exception of Yew (Taxus species), but they are red berries (and highly toxic). They would be planted, non-native species in most parts of North America (so not found in the wild) with the exception of the Pacific Coast where there is a native species, Taxus brevifolia.

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin
    edited January 2020

    @torey I agree. The smell of the berry is very telling.... as is the bark, resin, stems/needles (need to check a botany book for the right term), the wood is also very distinctive. Yew does look somewhat similar, but the berries are so very different - they look kind of scary, really. Where I come from, there is a plant called "doll's eyes"... it has white berries, with a central dark spot, on red stems.... it looks like something out of a horror movie... oddly enough, some people still get poisoned by eating it. But, I'd put yew in that category - it is almost screaming "don't touch!" Granted, there is some tropical fruit that could look as intimidating... but not much in the temperate zone