Juniper is one of only three conifers native to Britain, along with Scots Pine and Yew. It’s an evergreen shrub or small tree with blue-green needle shaped leaves with a broad white stripe which are present year round. The bark on young plants is brown, but turns grey as the plant gets older. Juniper bushes are very slow growing and live for around 100-120 years on average, reaching heights of up to 10 meters. Juniper is best known for its fleshy, purple fruits – juniper berries – which are commonly used to make gin.
Juniper is found throughout most of Scotland, but is only considered common in the Highlands. There are two subspecies of Juniper found in Scotland – Juniperus communis ssp. communis and Juniperus communis ssp. nana.
Juniperus communis ssp. communis grows in an erect and shrubby form, and is the most widespread subspecies of Juniper. Juniperus communis ssp. nana grows in a prostrate form that grows low to the ground and is a common component of montane scrub, which grows just above the tree line on mountains.
It is a shade-intolerant species, and is found growing in open types of woodlands such as birch woods or pine woods. It is unusual in that it can grow on both acid and alkaline soils.
Juniper is commonly used for culinary purposes, and historically was an important export for Scotland. It is best known for being used to make gin – a distilled alcohol with an aromatic and botanical flavour. Scotland has over 90 gin distilleries, and makes over 70% of gin produced in the UK. Locally, this includes Dundee distillery Verdant Spirits, which was Dundee’s first distillery in almost 200 years when it opened in 2017.
Other culinary uses for juniper include seasoning, especially for game meat from wild animals and birds such as pheasant, deer, and rabbit. In the 18th century juniper was one of the most widely used seasonings and was used similarly to how black pepper is used today.
Historically, juniper was also used as a medicinal herb and was a popular item in doctors’ kits for centuries – across Europe apothecaries were quick to hand out juniper tonic wines as a cure-all for coughs, cold, pains, and cramps. It was also, incorrectly, thought to protect against the plague and medieval plague doctors stuffed the beaks of their masks to protect themselves.
Juniper is also used in cosmetics and fragrances. The berries are used to create juniper berry oil, and the wood is used to produce cade oil. Juniper berry oil is considered to be good at treating and soothing skin conditions like acne as it is antiseptic and can help to cleanse the skin while balancing sebum production. Cade oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties which make it good for treating dandruff in hair treatments and to soothe skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. It also has a strong and woody smell which can be added to perfumes and fragrances to add depth.
The wood from juniper trees and shrubs has a warm, golden sand colour and can be used for wood turning and carving, as well as being suitable for burning to smoke food.
Although juniper is widespread across Scotland, it has been in decline in recent years and has been identified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Juniper stocks across the country are at risk, and the majority of juniper used in Scottish commercial cooking and spirits production is imported from abroad. It is estimated that just under 80% of plants in the country are now too old to produce a sufficient number of berries. In addition, it is estimated that up to 63% of juniper stock is infected with a fungus-like organism called phytophthora austrodedri, which causes a reduction in productivity and a browning of the trees, according to a study by Plantlife Scotland.
Forestry Commission Scotland published an action plan for juniper conservation in 2009 which outlined key steps to protect and regenerate the juniper population across Scotland. This includes maintaining and protecting existing populations, encouraging natural regeneration where there are existing juniper populations, and planting new stands of juniper in sustainable groupings to establish new populations at sites where juniper is no longer found.
Notably, Arbikie Distilleries in Angus operate “field to bottle” growing all their raw ingredients on their farm estate that surrounds the distillery. They produce 3 varieties of gin using juniper that is grown on their estate, including the world’s first climate positive gin which is made from a base of peas flavoured with botanicals grown on their farm. Since 2015 they have planted on average 600 juniper plants each year, and pledge to plant one more juniper plant for every bottle of gin bought from their website.
“Juniper”. Woodland Trust, https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/juniper/. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“Wild Scottish Juniper”. Slow Food, https://www.slowfood.org.uk/ff-products/wild-scottish-juniper/. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“Action for Juniper”. Forestry Commission Scotland, https://forestry.gov.scot/images/corporate/pdf/fcs-species-juniper.pdf. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“Juniper – A Plant to be Celebrated and Protected”. Scottish Wildlife Trust, https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2018/11/juniper-a-plant-to-be-celebrated-and-protected/. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“The State of Scotland’s Juniper in 2015”. Plantlife Scotland, https://www.plantlife.org.uk/application/files/6514/8241/0951/ScotsJuniper_report_2015.pdf. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“Juniper: Facts and Information”. Trees for Life, https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/juniper/. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“Gin”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“Ingredient: Juniperberry Oil”. Lush UK, https://uk.lush.com/ingredients/juniperberry-oil. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“Ingredient: Cade Oil”. Lush UK, https://uk.lush.com/ingredients/cade-oil. Accessed 17th March 2021.
“Sustainable Spirits: Saving the Juniper Plant”. Arbikie Highland Estate, https://www.arbikie.com/blog/sustainable-spirits-saving-the-juniper-plant. Accessed 18th March 2021.
“Arbikie Launches the World’s First Climate Positive Gin Made from Peas”. Arbikie Highland Estate, https://www.arbikie.com/blog/arbikie-launches-worlds-first-climate-positive-gin-made-from-peas. Accessed 18th March 2021.