Junipers are coniferous plants in the genus Juniperus /dʒuːˈnɪpərəs/ of the cypress family Cupressaceae. Depending on taxonomic viewpoint, between 50 and 67 species of juniper are widely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic, south to tropical Africa, from Ziarat, Pakistan east to eastern Tibet in the Old World, and in the mountains of Central America. The highest-known Juniper forest occurs at an altitude of 16,000 feet (4,900 m) in south-eastern Tibet and the northern Himalayas, creating one of the highest tree-lines on earth.
Juniper berries are a spice used in a wide variety of culinary dishes and best known for the primary flavoring in liquor beverage Gin (and responsible for gin’s name, which is a shortening of the Dutch word for juniper, genever). Juniper berries are also used as the primary flavor in the liquor Jenever and sahti-style of beers. Juniper berry sauce is often a popular flavoring choice for quail, pheasant, veal, rabbit, venison and other meat dishes.
Many of the earliest prehistoric people lived in or near juniper forests which furnished them food, fuel, and wood for shelter or utensils. Many species, such as J. chinensis (Chinese Juniper) from eastern Asia, are extensively used in landscaping and horticulture, and as one of the most popular species for use in bonsai. It is also a symbol of longevity, strength, athleticism, and fertility.
Some junipers are given the common name “cedar,” including Juniperus virginiana, the “red cedar” that is used widely in cedar drawers. “Eastern redcedar” is the correct name for J. virginiana. The lack of space between the words “red” and “cedar” indicate that this species is not a true cedar, Cedrus.
In Morocco, the tar (Gitran) of the arar tree (Juniperus Phoenicia) is applied in dotted patterns on bisque drinking cups. Gitran makes the water more fragrant and is said to be good for the teeth.
Some Indigenous peoples, such as the Dineh, have traditionally used juniper to treat diabetes. Animal studies have shown that treatment with juniper may retard the development of streptozotocin-induced diabetes in mice. Native Americans have also used juniper berries as a female contraceptive. The 17th Century herbalist physician Nicholas Culpeper recommended the ripened berries for conditions such as asthma and sciatica, as well as to speed childbirth.
Juniper is one of the plants used in Scottish and Gaelic Polytheist saining rites, such as those performed at Hogmanay (New Year), where the smoke of burning juniper is used to cleanse, bless and protect the household and its inhabitants.
Junipers vary in size and shape from tall trees, 20–40 m (66–131 ft.) tall, to columnar or low spreading shrubs with long trailing branches. They are evergreen with needle-like and/or scale-like leaves. They can be either monoecious or dioecious. The female seed cones are very distinctive, with fleshy, fruit-like coalescing scales which fuse together to form a “berry”-like structure, 4–27 mm (0.16–1.06 in) long, with 1–12 unwinged, hard-shelled seeds. In some species these “berries” are red-brown or orange but in most they are blue; they are often aromatic and can be used as a spice. The seed maturation time varies between species from 6–18 months after pollination. The male cones are similar to those of other Cupressaceous, with 6–20 scales.
In zones 7 through 10, junipers can bloom and release pollen several times each year. A few species of juniper bloom in autumn, while most species pollinate from early winter until late spring.