We’ve been enjoying a good run of spring-like warmth and sunshine here in Sweden, which has been glorious beyond words. I can’t believe how green the forest is already! Not like wildly overgrown and lush yet, but still, the color saturation is dialing up, looking so animate and vigorous again. In our garden, our Elder tree has begun to produce green buds. It will still be a few weeks until the flowers and weeds poke their heads through the soils though. And for good reason. They, too, know that winter is likely to return again a time or two. So while the rest of the world is seeing violets and stinging nettles, cresses and wild garlic, we are still seeing mostly… evergreens.
But last weekend I was walking to a cafe that’s located in a nearby nature reserve. The roads were completely iced over, people were turning around and finding other routes, but I quickly leapt into the forest, following a path that led straight up the side of a hill. It was muddy but ice-free, and so worth it once I got to the top, where a vivid green and gold forest awaited, glittering and chirping with birdsong. The forest floor was carpeted in the plushes of mosses. It was like stepping into another world.
I became 6 years old again. Gasped when I spotted a bright yellow butterfly – the first butterfly I’ve seen in, what, like 8 months? Then I saw another butterfly, and another. In the sunlight, their flickering yellow bodies were like golden sparkles surrounding me.
One nice thing about the forest right now is how open it is. None of the underbrush and foilage has returned yet, so it’s very easy to jut off this way or that way. Which is exactly what I was doing when something caught my eye… not something flickering gold, but something lying in the background, tucked away in the dark green foliage as if trying to stay out of the spotlight… ripe purple juniper berries!
I know what you’re thinking… Juniper berries in the spring?
Yes, it’s true that they’re usually harvested in autumn, and I do harvest them as well then, as evidenced in our time in Uppland last autumn. I also harvested a handful in December when making our wildcrafted winter gin. But juniper berries actually overwinter quite nicely. Check it out for yourself! The next time you find a scraggly Juniper tree with some purple berries still on it, go ahead and pluck one off. Crush it in your fingers and take a whiff. Smells amazing, right? Now go on and taste it too. Yesss, you see! If they’re aromatic and tasty, then they’re worth gathering.
Wildharvesting juniper berries in spring
There may not be a ton of juniper berries still hanging on the branches by spring. The birds love them too and rely on them through the winter, as do deer and foxes. Also, by springtime, the berries are quite dry and loosely attached to the branch, which means that a strong spring wind can knock them right off, scatter them to the ground. If you begin wild harvesting them yourself, you will notice that they pop right off of the branches very easily – almost too easily. I was losing so many berries that I ended up taking off my jacket and laying it down on the forest ground to catch the berries that were popping off too quickly.
Fun fact: Juniper berries are not actually berries. They are the “cones” of the female Juniper trees. Juniper is a deciduous tree, meaning that there are males and females growing separately. The male trees produce visible brown cones while the female trees produce cones that are so tiny and compact that you can’t see the scales, so they appear to us as round berries.
It takes three full years for a Juniper tree to produce and ripen the berries. The first year, there will probably not be any visible berries yet. Year two, the berries are still green – not ready yet. By the end of year three, the surviving berries will have ripened and turned blue or purple in color – now they’re ready for harvesting!
You’ll notice that, in a cluster of berries, the green (unripe) and purple (ripe) berries are often growing together in the same cluster. When harvesting berries, I never snap whole branches off of the tree, but rather pluck off the ripe berries, leaving the green ones for next year.
Juniper trees are self-pruning, so they will shed their branches as needed in order to ensure their health and survival. This is why the trees often look scraggly and mystical, and why no two Juniper trees ever look the same! Also, Junipers grow slowly. A tree merely 120 cm (5 feet) tall could be 50 years old. Adult Juniper trees can be 300-700 years old, the oldest here in Sweden is over 840 years old now, and some junipers have even been known to pass the millennium mark. How many human cultures have they seen come and go? I feel I need to pay some respect while in their presence. They are elders. Ancestors.
Wild juniper berries may be small, but they are packed and potent. They have an unforgettable flavor and aroma that is piney, balsamic, slightly peppery with fruit overtones and citrusy undertones. They have powerful medicinal properties too. Whether used as a spice or as medicine, a little goes a long way.
And of course you can buy juniper berries at the supermarket, usually in the spice aisle, but there are some major rewards for going outside and shopping from nature. Foraging comes with so many benefits! Not only are wild foods more nutrient dense than domesticated ones (and all juniper berries in the supermarket are domesticated, and probably imported from someplace very far away), but they’re free! Plus, the very act of foraging comes with so many benefits to us physically, mentally, and emotionally. Read more on the benefits of foraging here.
Junipers are coniferous trees and shrubs in the genus Juniperurs of the cypress family Cupressaceae.
Properties of juniper berries
Astringent, antiseptic, aphrodisiac, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, digestive, diuretic
Not to be used during pregnancy due to its stimulant qualities. In fact, juniper was historically used to abort unwanted pregnancies. And reportedly, Zuni Indians used juniper to assist childbirth.
Culinary uses of juniper berries
Today the most common use for juniper berries is gin making. In fact, it is juniper berries that gives gin its distinctive flavor. (We definitely added wild juniper berries to our homemade winter gin!)
A kitchen spice, particularly when cooking any wild foods like wild game or foraged mushrooms. But juniper berries give a unique flavor to any rich meats like pork or even chicken, sausages, stuffings, stews and more.
In fermented foods, like sauerkraut or sourdough, in beer brewing or soda making. This is because juniper berries contain a small amount of natural yeast on their skin, which aids any fermentation process, while also adding an unforgettable flavor. I almost always add a crushed juniper berry into my homemade sauerkrauts!
Native Americans were also known to ground the berries into flour, use it for baking.
Medicinal uses of juniper berries
The most common medicinal use is to treat urinary tract infections, due to their diuretic properties in combination with their antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. It can tackle the bacteria in the kidneys, and then increase urine volume to flush the bacteria out – and all without flushing away too many electrolytes.
Other than UTIs, juniper berries are associated with a long list of medicinal benefits and have historically been used to treat or alleviate: diabetes, cold and flu symptoms, swollen joints, stiff neck or back (making juniper oil great for massages), arthritic pain, bloating and water retention, digestive issues like gas and stomach cramping, eye infections, fever, headache, dizziness, diarrhea, cystitis, kidney issues, anemia (blood tonic, not source of iron), parasites and bacteria, also scabies.
The high antioxidant content of juniper berries enables them to keep the body strong, healthy and disease-free. So enjoy them not only to alleviate health issues, but also to prevent them.
Another benefit is improved sleep quality. Oil distilled from juniper berries has been proven to reduce anxiety and act as a relaxant. It has helped people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
Topical uses of juniper berries
The astringent properties of juniper berry make it great for cleansing, even cleaning out pores. Therefore they are considered anti-acne and are often used to help clear the skin, decongest pores and even help fade scarring from acne.
We offer a wyld Juniper Toner that’s formulated to work for oily and acne-prone skin. The toner is made with hydrosol waters distilled from juniper berries, is gentle yet clarifying. Which also makes it a fantastic after shave spray that both my partner and I enjoy regularly.
Due to their anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, juniper berries can be used to treat skin inflammation and infection like rashes, eczema and has even been known to cure skin mites.
Other reported benefits: tackling body odor, fading wrinkles and reducing cellulite.
In baby care products, juniper berry is infused in creams to treat minor diaper rashes or wet rashes.
Juniper can also increase blood circulation, which contributes to faster healing of wounds and an overall healthier skin tone.
Juniper berry oil is known to be balancing. It helps to regulate hormones and improve skin conditions caused by hormonal imbalances, offering a more smooth complexion.
Ceremonial uses of juniper berries
Across the globe, the juniper tree and its berries carried much mythology and lore. It was used ceremonially in Scotland, Tibet and the deserts of first world America as a purifying agent. Native Americans used them in basketry and jewelry making as well – see image below for an example. I think it’s so beautiful! Burning juniper is thought to clear the air and cleanse any negativity.
So what am I going to do with the juniper berries that I wild harvested this spring?
I have two ideas! Well, honestly I have dozens of ideas, but I’ve only managed to harvest about an ounce or two of juniper berries so far, so I have to prioritize.
As much as I would love to cook with them, I am going to use them in some skincare applications.
Lately I’ve been struggling with acne. I didn’t even know that I could struggle with acne at my age, but apparently so! The breakouts began when I started using face creams and creamy face cleansers, which I have stubbornly used for a few months now, even handcrafted some myself to see if that would solve the breakout issues. Nope. More on this in a later post. For now, I’ve gone back to oil cleansing and moisturizing with wyld oil blends, particularly the rose gold elixir. Within just a couple of days, the acne cleared considerably – finally! I’m wondering if the juniper berries will help even more.
So I’m drying the juniper berries now and plan to:
1 – Infuse crushed wild juniper berries into witch hazel hydrosol and sort of reinvent the wyld juniper toner. It already contains the hydrosol waters distilled from juniper berries, but I’m very curious to see if macerating the whole berry will make a difference.
2 – Infuse juniper berries into my cleansing face oil. I’m hoping that the juniper berries will help clear away the acne caused by my recent experimentation with face cleansers and creams. I absolutely love having elderflowers in the cleansing face oil, but it’s still some weeks until we can harvest elderflowers. For now, the earth gives me juniper berries.
I’ve got a new video coming at you soon that will show my process and hopefully some results. Stay tuned!
With any luck, I’ll be able to find another handful of ripe wild juniper berries, and if I do, I really want to use them in my next batch of sauerkraut – something I make every couple of months for my family. We love it, and I can just imagine how juniper berries will knock the flavor (and the benefits) up a few notches.
I’d also love to make a body cream with juniper berry infused oil! Have it on hand for my son’s eczema flare-ups or as a luxurious cream to rub into the body after a physically active day.
So the next time you’re out wandering the forest, keep an eye out for a mystical juniper tree with some ripe berries to offer you. And if you gather any, I’d love to hear how you use them!