Plant Profile: Juniper
As we dive into the depths of winter, the evergreen trees are shining in all of their luscious, green glory! Including our native juniper species, Juniperus virginiana. Walking along the hedges of these gorgeous green trees and collecting their deep blue berries alongside the birds has become a winter ritual for us this year, one that I hope to continue in winters to come.
Juniper’s name is derived from the Latin word juniperus. In Latin, juniperus is a combination of the word junio, which means young, and parere, to produce. Together they meaning “youth-producing” or evergreen. Juniper is perhaps most well-known as the primary flavor of gin though it has a long history of use medicinally and can be found interwoven into the lore and folktales of ancient civilizations around the world.
Herb-lore & Superstition
Juniper has been around for pretty much all of human civilization and has thus earned a reputation throughout the world. In most historical cultures, Juniper was praised for its ability to protect against bad magic, plague, negative influence, and illnesses of all kinds. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks considered Juniper a purifying and protective herb and other ancient peoples from the Mediterranean used sacred Juniper wood as ceremonial and medicinal incense.
Even outside of the Mediterranean, Juniper was often burned for the purpose of sweetening a room with its smoke. Alternatively, branches were placed on the floor so that when people would walk across them, the aromatic oils would be released into the air as a perfume for the room. Queen Elizabeth herself preferred a bedchamber sweetened with Juniper! Shamans from Siberia to northwest Pakistan also burned and inhaled the smoke of Juniper to induce a trance before performing their magical rites and practices. Juniper smoke has been noted as an aid in divinatory practices around the world and is burned both practically and ritually.
Juniper was considered the tree of life by ancient Germans who hung branches on homes to ward evil, invoked the Juniper Spirit to reveal thieves, and used Juniper berries as a flavoring agent for their intoxicating beers. Many other European cultures hang Juniper above their doorway, in the barn, or near their beehives, to protect the house from witchcraft, demons, and other sources of ill-magic.
It has a long history of use in Celtic rituals for Beltane and Winter Solstice, and this herb is still used today in Scottish New Year (Hogmanay) “sainings” or home blessings. The Welsh believed that if someone cut down a Juniper tree, they would surely die within a year. In Iceland, people believed that if you are building a boat, you must either use both Juniper and Rowan wood or use neither of them at all, otherwise it will sink. Icelandic people also believed that having Juniper and Rowan growing near each other would cause one of the trees to burn up and that bringing both branches into your home was a bad idea – unless you liked the idea of your house burning down!
European superstition considered it unlucky to dream of a Juniper tree, especially if the dreamer was sickly. Dreaming of gathering the berries in winter, however, was a sign of prosperity to come. To dream of the berries themselves signifies that the dreamer would soon become a very important person; to dream of them while married fortold the birth of a male child. Another superstition from Somerset said that you should never tell a secret by a Juniper tree, for everyone will know it within a week.
In North America, indigenous tribes used their local cultivars of Juniper medicinally and spiritually in many similar ways as other cultures around the world. The Interior Salish and Northwest coast tribes used Juniper to banish evil spirits and protect themselves from witchcraft, much like other civilizations around the world. Plains tribes such as the Dakota, Cheyenne, and Pawnee, often hung boughs of Juniper on their homes or burned them in the camp fire to protect the home from storms. Juniper was believed to counteract ‘ghost-sickness’ by the southwestern Pueblos, preventing those who handled the bodies of the dead or bereaved relatives from suffering from the malady.
In many tribes, hunters would carry a sprig of Juniper as a protective charm before embarking on dangerous expeditions and this herb was frequently included in medicine bundles and amulets for good luck or protection. Juniper was also often used in the building of sweat lodges and sometimes the tea was poured on the hot stones to produce a cleansing steam in the lodge. Here in the Southeast, the Cherokee (Aniyunwiya, Tsalagi) peoples used Juniperus virginiana (the native Juniper) as an abortificent, anthelminitc, internal antirheumatic, cold remedy, dermatological aid, diaphoretic, disease remedy, and as a food source – much like other tribes around North America.
Perhaps the most famous folktale about Juniper is one of the most horrific of the Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Juniper Tree – a story of child abuse, death, cannibalism, revenge, and resurrection...but also maybe, just maybe, the shamanic initiation of a young man? We see this initiation pattern through his initial death, the return to the cauldron/womb of transformation, the stripping of the his flesh and the consumption of that flesh by the his life guide/father, the return of the young man to his ancestors and the world tree, shape-shifting, and his re-integration and return to the human world. Perhaps a stretch (and a little dark), but at the very least its an interesting tale of Juniper, indeed!
The lore and history surrounding Juniper is extremely extensive and can be found all over the world, from the Western Coast of the United States to the mountains of Tibet. It is truly fascinating that this plant has left such a strong impression on humans around the world throughout history! As we can see, most cultures used Juniper in similar ways even though many of these societies were separated by land masses and entire oceans. Juniper has been inexplicably intertwined with our species since the very beginning, guiding us along our journey to where we are now with its medicine and energetic architecture. It brings me great comfort to know that this plant, which grows prolifically in my area, has such a rich tradition of use by my ancestors and likely yours too.
Monograph & medicinal Uses
Botanical Name Juniperus spp.
Common Name Juniper
Parts Used Ripe berries, needles, and sometimes roots.
Native Region Juniper is native to most of the northern world. The cypress family arose during the Triassic period, roughly 250 million years ago, resulting in Juniper being found in North America, Asia, Japan, Europe, and Northern Africa. In Central/Eastern America, we most commonly use Juniperus virginiana.
Geographic Distribution Juniper can thrive in a wide variety of temperatures, soil conditions, and elevations, though it doesn't favor extreme climates. It is very easy to find in fields, roadsides, ridges, rocky slopes, cliffs, and balds. Many varieties of Juniper are planted as an ornamental or decorative element in landscaping.
Botanical Description There are up to 62 species of Juniper that grow in many forms – either as a groundcover, shrub, or tree. Juniper is a perennial deciduous shrub with numerous stems and reddish or brown bark. Males and females flower on separate trees with female trees producing the "berries", which are actually cones. Berries are green in their first year and then ripen after 2-3 years, turning dark blue or purpleish-silver after the first frost.
Harvesting Guidelines Collect ripe berries throughout the year as they deepen in color. Some may have a silvery color to the outside that fades into deep blue as they dry. Avoid green berries which are immature. Make sure to dry berries in a cool, dark place to preserve essential oil content. Juniper sprigs may be placed in a brown paper bag to dry and then stored in a glass jar like other herbs.
Actions Alterative, Antiseptic, Bitter, Carminative, Circulatory Stimulant, Diaphoretic, Diuretic, Emmenagogue.
Taste Bitter, Pungent, Sweet
Energetics Hot, Dry
Constituents Juniper berries contain up to 100 constituents that differ by ripeness, species, location, and age. These constituents include monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, proanthocyanidines, flavonoids, lignan desoxypodophyllotoxin and its isomer desoxypicropodophyllotoxin, diterpene acids, sugars, resin, and more. The berries are high in vitamins C, D3, and B1, as well as amino acids, and trace minerals (calcium, cobalt, chromium, iron, magnesium, manganses, potassium, selenium, zinc. Berries have a volatile oil content between .2%-3.4%.
Organ System Affinity Gastrointestinal System (Liver), Urinary System (Kidneys)
Specific Indications Juniper is specifically indicated for the following patterns:
Cold/Depression: This tissue state is characterized by tissues that fail to respond to stimulation and excess coldness throughout the body or tissues. The person may have cold hands in feet, a pale and dull complexion, low and slow pulse, a tendency not to sweat, edema, poor circulation, low libido, and a tongue coating is usually present, sometimes pale or with dark spots. Juniper is specifically indicated for cold/depression in the liver which is often seen as poor metabolism, low production of bile, deficiency of nutrients, a psychological tendency towards despair, and systematic toxicity. In the kidneys, this tissue state looks like depressed/sluggish/slow kidney function, urine retention, high predisposition towards infection, nocturia, cloudy urine, heavy to pass urine, etc. Individual may also have pain in the lumbar region of their back.
Damp/Stagnation: This occurs when fluids are not being passed through the channels of elimination properly and are instead getting backed up thickening into catarrh, phlegm, or mucus. Damp/Stagnation results in a “bad blood” or “toxic blood” syndrome, low metabolism, predisposition towards toxicity, dull expression of the skin and musculature, dull facial expression, fluid retention, tongue with a white or yellow coat, sometimes hypothyroidism, skin eruptions, and excess/thick phlegm or mucus. This tissue state, when seen in the kidneys and urinary tract, means that it is likely systemic and/or rooted in the liver.
In my experience, these tissue states are often connected to one another and tend to exist in some capacity together at the same time, but that is not always the case.
Uses Junipers actions are primarily associated with its volatile oil components. Its antimicrobial quality (primarily from bioactive monoterpene hydrocarbons), shows Juniper effective against 57 strains of 24 bacterial species including Acinetobacter, Bacillus, Brevundimonas, Brucella, Enterbaccter, Escherichia, Micrococcus, Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, and Xanthomonas; inhibits eleven Candida species; and is active against anti-biotic resistent Staphylococcus aureus and H37Rv Mycobacterium. In lab studies, Juniper demonstrated potent inhibition of Herpes Simplex type 1 in human cell cultures. Juniper’s antimicrobial activity makes it an excellent topical disinfectant for wounds, surfaces, utensils, or surgical instruments and it can be used as a gargle for disinfecting the throat.
It is an extremely pungent and warming remedy that has a specific affinity for the kidneys and the liver. Juniper stimulates the liver through its bitter flavor while its carminative action improves and soothes digestion. This herb is incredibly helpful for accumulation of dampness and stagnation in the liver, seen as “bad blood” or “toxic blood” syndrome, where the liver is not eliminating waste products effectively due to elimination channels being backed up or stagnant. Juniper has a bitter alterative effect on the liver, restoring the proper function of the organ and assisting in its ability to filter and eliminate metabolic waste products effectively.
In cases of poor digestion, Juniper helps to ease flatulent colic and helps with poor digestion of fats and oils. Juniper is a general stomach tonic and digestive aid, used for dyspepsia, heartburn, spastic colon, constipation (due to damp/stagnation and not dryness), abdominal edema, colic, and inflammatory GI disorders. Historically, Juniper has also been used for intestinal parasites. Its antimicrobial action may be beneficial for certain digestive disorders but remember that this is a low dose herb and it should be used for short periods of time. Use of any antimicrobial herbs internally will effect the microbiome balance so keep that in mind here.
As a urinary system herb, Juniper directly stimulates the kidneys by raising the rate of glomerulus filtration (attributed to the essential oil terpinene-4-ol), resulting in diuresis. Juniper is also used for its antiseptic quality against cystitis and to treat UTIs and renal calculi. This herb is only indicated for the use with urinary system/kidney issues if, and only if, the individual does not have an existing kidney condition. However, Juniper can be used in cases of nephritis, or kidney infection, along with antibiotics when the infection is chronic, non-inflammatory, and from renal depression. Never use Juniper during an active kidney infection. Juniper is also indicated for kidney pain that is felt in the lower back accompanied by nervous system weakness. Juniper can also be used for cystitis that is consistent with the cold/depression tissue state.
Juniper is also used to relieve rheumatism or arthritis both internally and externally. It can be taken internally to relieve pain in joins/muscles or applied topically for small wounds or rheumatic pain. Its anti-rheumatic action may be due to its diuretic ability. Infusions of Juniper has been noted as a remedy for gout and conditions of inflammation of fibers and ligaments of joints.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Juniper is classified as a blood purifying kidney tonic that is nutritive to the spleen, lungs, and heart with warming properties that expel cold, facilitate detoxification, and aid digestion.
Juniper also acts as a circulatory stimulant, warming and moving the blood making it a helpful driving herb for formulas that need to be “warmed up”. Juniper is advised for dropsy, or an accumulation of fluid in various parts of the body – often caused by liver, heart, or kidney disease and accompanied by scanty urine, edema, low appetite, sluggishness, and debility. It may be an ally for congestive heart failure and related edema as well. Additionally, Juniper has been used as an ally against scurvy, for diseases of the prostate gland, as a wash or douche for leukorrhea, as a steam to treat bronchitis and other lung infections, and for many other ailments throughout history.
Some species of Juniper were used at the onset of labor to relax the muscles in preparation and after childbirth to stop blood flow. Other species have been used to dress wounds, for mouth sores, menstrual difficulties, coughs and colds, fevers, as a blood tonic, and more. For in depth information on uses specific to different species of Juniper, I recommend reading Ellen Evert Hopman’s book, Secret Medicines from Your Garden.
A Note for Practitioners Juniper is contraindicated for Pitta constitutions as it can aggravate their disposition. Generally speaking, do not use Juniper with individuals who are experiencing the heat/excitation tissue state, especially in the urinary system or nervous system. For example, if someone has a Urinary Tract Infection with a hot/burning sensation upon urination, Juniper is not the herb for them. Juniper is especially strong so it should be used in low doses for short periods of time and never if the individual has kidney issues. Please see safety notes below.
Dosage Start small with this remedy and do not overuse or take for long periods of time.
As an infusion, add one teaspoon of crushed berries or one teaspoon of crushed needles to a cup of hot water. Steep for 15-20 minutes. Take up to three cups per day in quarter cup doses.
A tincture made with fresh or dry berries should be made as a 1:5 ration in 40% alcohol. David Hoffman recommends 10-20 drops of tincture up to 3x per day. Michael Tierra recommends 10-30 drops up to 3x daily. Juniper is a strong remedy and can be added in small amounts as a driving/volatilizing herb in formulas. It is a fantastic addition to a bitters formula at 5-10% of the whole, depending on the other herbs in the formula, because of its specific indication for the liver and ability to warm up a formula that would usually be cooling (most bitters are cold).
To use Juniper topically, finely grind the dried root and sprinkle on to infected wounds or mix powder with water to form a paste and apply to affected area. Juniper infused oil may be massaged into achey joints or muscles for relief. Here I am referring to a true infused herbal oil, not the essential oil.
When taking the dried berries directly, the dosage is 2g-10g daily which translates to 20-100mg of the essential oil. Do not take essential oils internally without the supervision of an experienced practitioner.
Safety Some species of Juniper are very toxic. Common Juniper is the variety most used today though others are medicinal as well. Be certain that if you choose to wildcraft this plant for medicine that you positively ID a safe species for internal use. Juniper can be overstimulating for the kidneys and acutely aggravate kidney issues. Prolonged use or overuse of Juniper may result in renal damage, evidenced by renal pain with an increased urge to urinate, pain during urination, and hematuria and albuminia. Juniper should absolutely not be used by individuals with kidney disease, kidney failure, or constitutional kidney weakness. Avoid during pregnancy or if trying to conceive as this herb has been traditionally used to bring on the menses. It should not be used if the individual is experiencing heat/excitation in the body, specifically if they have a UTI exhibiting the heat/excitation pattern, if there is heat in the kidneys, or in cases of neuritis.
Herb/Drug Interactions Juniper should not be combined with anti-diabetic drugs as it may potentiate hypoglycemic effects. It should also be avoided if taking anticoagulants.
Energetic Architecture & Esoteric Significance
Principle of Alchemy Sulfur
Astrological Correspondance Aries
Planetary Ruler Mars & the Sun
Most of the old texts about planetary rulers of herbs refer to Juniper as being ruled by Sun. Sun ruled medicines are typically heating herbs that restore the vital forces and resist poison, which Juniper undoubtedly does. Evergreen herbs who have a steady and constant expression of life force, never losing their greenery even in the darkness of winter, are also typically associated with the Sun. Herbs under the Sun’s dominion also tend to restore energy and vitality, support immunity, and stimulate the body. Juniper shows all of these characteristics and is also a Sun herb because of its ability to dispel cold, damp conditions in the body (especially in the genitourinary tract, bronchial passages, and musculoskeletal system).
I agree that Juniper has an energetic architecture consistent with the Sun, but I also feel that, at least our native variety, shares its rulership with Mars. Many texts on medical astrology and astro-herbalism were written centuries ago by scholars in Europe without ever having the experience of interacting with North American plants. Here in the Southeast (and much of the United States) I rarely interact with European species of Juniper, for which previous texts were referring to. Instead, I commune with our local species of Juniper, Juniperus virginiana, also known as Eastern Red Cedar.
This species of Juniper likes to grow in open dry areas in full sun and has a fierce intensity with its sharp cones and prickly branches, a signature of Mars. In my experience, Eastern Red Cedar berries and needles are much dryer and hotter energetically than Common Juniper, showing that Mars has a stronger dominion over this plant than the Sun. This Juniper intensely increases metabolic Fire, stimulates the production and flow of bile through its bitter flavor, has a direct effect on blood circulation, and is an effective bitter alterative herb for the liver – all of which fall under the characteristics of Mars. I propose that while generally speaking we can say that Juniper is ruled by both Mars and the Sun, I argue that our southeastern variety’s primary ruler is Mars based on my direct experiences with the plant.
With that said, Juniper would exacerbate an excess of Mars or Vital Force (Sun) but can serve as a remediation to excess Venus or excess Moon pathologies. We see this in the body as damp/stagnation, cold/depression, or damp/relaxation (especially with excess Venus and more specifically in the urinary tract).
Tarot Two of Wands – Mars in Aries
In the Thoth deck (from which astrological correspondences are usually drawn), the Two of Wands represents Mars in Aries and is described as Dominion. In the Traditional Rider Waite deck, for the Two of Wands we see a figure standing on a rooftop, looking out towards the mountains and the sea, with a globe in one hand and a staff in another. This card takes the energetic spark of inspiration from the Ace of Wands and transforms it into an action plan for the future. It is through self-mastery and empowerment that we can find the confidence to take action towards our future plans.
In Michael Tierra & Candis Cantin’s Herbal Tarot, Juniper is said to help us clarify fantasies and unreal expectations to determine our actual needs. In this way, Juniper assists us in realizing our inner power as we progress on the path of self-mastery so that we can volatilize our vital force through confident (Mars) action (Aries) towards the Three of Wands (Sun in Aries) – moving forward with our plans. The medicine of Juniper makes it a potent ally through the process of self-discovery, perhaps a talisman plant for the Aries individual, or energetic medicine for individuals seeking a stronger sense of willpower and ability to take action. Juniper may be especially helpful in murky, emotional situations depicted in the Suit of Cups, for example. The Two of Wands also carries a sense of, “being protected in one’s endeavors,” as described by The Herbal Tarot. Juniper has been long recognized as a plant for protection, making it a powerful ally when needing a protective container that allows us to take action with confidence and our inner work of self-mastery.
Alright! I know that was a ton of info on a plant that perhaps you haven’t thought much about in the past. The last note that I would like to make here is one of land acknowledgement, especially because the species of Juniper that I am speaking about here isn’t the same one my ancestors used but is the indigenous medicine to the Muscogee/Creek (Mvskoke) and Cherokee (Aniyunwiya, Tsalagi) peoples of this land (among other tribes who use Juniper). As someone who focuses on bioregional herbalism as a conservation and sustainability effort, I must take a moment to encourage anyone reading this to learn about the plants in their area BUT to also learn about the indigenous folks who stewarded the land that plant is growing on.
Furthermore, since Juniper is often used as a form of smoke medicine in cultures throughout the world, please consider using this plant vs. at-risk species sacred to indigenous tribes like White Sage for your cleansing rituals. Many of us, including myself, are settlers living on unceded territory and need to be mindful and respectful on how we interact with our landscape and the medicines and herbs of cultures indigenous to this land.
We must stop continuing to exploit indigenous plants sacred to North American tribes like White Sage, a plant that is part of religious practices our recent ancestors barred Indigenous peoples’ ability to practice openly for centuries. We cannot continue to perpetuate violence to those who the system our ancestors built, a system we all uphold in one way or another, continues to disenfranchise and directly harm every single day in a myriad of systematic and unjust ways.
So while Juniper is, historically, our medicine too, we should still show respect to the plants growing on this land that was stewarded by tribes, wrongfully removed from their homelands and violently harmed via colonization and continued, present injustices. We can do this by learning about the tribes who lived and continue to reside in the areas that we live now and by building respectful and reciprocal relationships with native plants that our ancestors do not have direct connections to. And even if we do have an ancestral connection to a cultivar, reciprocity and respect should always be a part of your wildcrafting practice.
Many species of Juniper are considered invasive in some areas and have “least concern” status in others – always check to make sure that the species you are interested in is safe to wildcraft but generally speaking, harvesting a few branches of Juniper is ecologically sound. The tree does grow very slowly though so please do not cut down existing trees. Again, respect and reciprocity is key. Ask the trees for permission to harvest their branches or berries, leave enough berries for the birds (especially in winter – they are a vital food source), give offerings to the plants, keep walking if harvesting from that tree just doesn’t feel “right”. Much of the medicine of Juniper is found by just sitting with it and observing its lessons without having to take any of its parts home with you. There is much medicine to be found through simply sitting and communing with our plant allies.
As time goes on, I will update this monograph with additional information and make a note of the most recent edit date at the top of this page. I hope you found this monograph illuminating and that it inspires you to begin working with the medicine of Juniper this winter season.
With love always,
_ Cantin, C., & Tierra, M. (1993). The spirit of herbs: A guide to the herbal tarot. Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems.
– Culpeper, N. (1810). Culpeper's Complete Herbal. London.
– Folkard, R. (1884). Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics. London: R. Folkord & Son.
– Ganora, L. (2015). The Action Formula [PDF]. American Herbalists Guild.
– Hoffmann, David. (2003). Medical Herbalism. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
– Hopman, E. E. (2016). Secret Medicines From Your Garden: Plants for Healing, Spirituality, and Magic. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
– Kadans, J. M. (1983). Encyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs. Wellingborough: Thorson.
– Native American Juniper Mythology. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2018, from http://www.native-languages.org/legends-juniper.html.
– Nursing 2004 Herbal Medicine Handbook. (2004). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
– Tierra, M. (1998). The Way of Herbs. New York, NY: Pocket Books.
– Watts, D. (2007). Dictionary of Plant Lore. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
– Wood, M. (2016). The Earthwise Herbal Repertory. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
– Wood, M. (2002). The Six Tissue States. Journal of the American Herbalists Guild, 3(1), 28-33.
– Notes from my studies at The Herbal Academy and Evolutionary Herbalism.
– Additional information collected from various sources including personal experience and synthesized in my personal materia medica.
Disclosure: This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or on any medications.