By Audrey Stallsmith
The slope is darkly sprinkled
With ancient junipers,
Each a small, secret tree:
There not a breath stirs.
I fear those waiting shapes
Of wry, blue-berried wood.
They make a twilight in my mind,
As if they drained my blood. . .
"The Junipers" by Robert Lawrence Binyon
We have large trees on the east side of our house, but the south and west sides are lined with overgrown juniper bushes. Those have become quite woody over the years, and are all thick trunks and sparse vegetation when seen from behind, but they still look green when viewed from the front.
As we aren't hedge-shearing types, our shaggy junipers seldom get pruned. I do try to cut the pushy bushes back some in spring to keep them out of the flowerbeds and usually whack off a few boughs in December to use as Christmas decorations. They at least make a contrasting dark backdrop for the perennial flowers planted in front of them.
I’m guessing all our junipers are a single sex, because I don’t recall ever seeing berries on them, which require the presence of both male and female plants. It’s possible, however, that those berries--actually 1/4-inch cones---all get eaten by birds while they still are an unobtrusive green, since they require at least a couple years to ripen to blue-black.
The junipers used to be infested by sparrows during the winter before our back porch became infested by barn cats looking for additonal handouts. I rather miss those little birds, as we could watch them from the kitchen windows which overlook the bushes.
The now common use of juniper bushes and trees in landscaping may have originated with the belief that they could repel witches—provided the hags couldn’t guess the exact number of needles on them! Thus, the plant stands for succor and protection in the Language of Flowers, though that tradition also could be attributed to the fact that Elijah slept under a juniper when fleeing from Queen Jezebel. (That must have been a prickly bed!)
The berries of the common type, Juniperus communis, flavor gin as well as meat dishes and also have been used in medicinal teas. Highly diuretic, they increase the production of urine, thus helping to relieve problems such as high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. They supposedly make that urine smell of violets too. James Duke of The Green Pharmacy mentions that the berries also contain a substance which weakens viruses.
However, the consumption of those berries or the teas brewed from them should be avoided by pregnant women and persons with kidney diseases or a tendency to hay fever. Nobody should consume juniper for longer than six weeks, as it irritates the kidneys if overused.
Because juniper wood doesn’t make much smoke when it burns, nurses once smoldered it in hospital rooms to disinfect them. Though I doubt that actually would work, it probably imparted a pleasantly piney fragrance anyhow!
Juniperus communis image is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of plantillustrations.org.