Sunday, 16 July 2017

Ah, juniper ...and a Sunday Snippet!

Sunday Surprise!

About Juniper... and if you read on there's a bonus Sunday Selection from my current writing. (not edited) 

Juniper -Scotland,  Wikimedia Commons

As I write my current manuscript, I’m wondering what kind of tree or bush growing in north east Scotland 2000 years ago would still have berries in October- Berries that are edible by humans.

One such possibility is Juniper berries. I’m mildly surprised to find that berries can be found on junipers pretty well the whole year round and even more interesting is that juniper berries can be ready for picking at different stages of the year. This is possible because they can develop at different times on the same plant. Initially slow to germinate they tend to take at least two years before they are established enough to set fruits and the fruits are often on the bush or tree over a two year cycle as well. That means, as int he photo below, that the current crop ripe and ready for picking are deep blue but the new ones set that season are green and will take another year to ripen. 

Botanically, junipers are dioecious meaning that individual plants are either male or female. (

Juniper berries, I now find, have been used for ritual, medicinal and for general eating purposes for thousands of years.

Culinary Use
Juniper berries- Wikimedia Commons (blue ripe/ green next years berries) 
A very interesting fact is that juniper berries were used by the Ancient Romans as a substitute to black pepper. I can definitely use that fact in my current writing! 
Similarly used in crushed form, juniper berries were added to sauces, and to dishes for cooking game in Scotland in historic times, the recipes handed down through the last centuries. Juniper berries were used in England to flavour bread and cakes so it may be that some similar use was also made of them on Scotland.  

Medicinal Use
The earliest known recorded medicinal use of juniper berries is found in an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1500 BC. The potion ingredients included juniper to cure tapeworm infestations. 
Juniper berries have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs though some of the varieties of juniper are not known to have been grown in Egypt.  A type of juniper was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun but it’s likely that the berries would have come from Greece.  And it’s possible that the Greeks may have used juniper berries to increase the physical stamina of the Olympians (athletes).

The Romans were known to have used juniper berries for stomach ailments and for clearing out the digestive system.  Culpepper, a medieval herbalist, prescribed them for the treatment of flatulence among other complaints (Juniper oil is still used for digestive tract ailments today).

It’s known now that chemicals in the berries stimulate contraction of the uterine muscles and could potentially be administered during labour which comes as no real surprise because in south eastern Scotland during medieval times if someone gave birth ‘Under the Savin’ it meant the woman was having a juniper induced abortion/ miscarriage (savin being an old name for a type of juniper).

Ritual Use
Juniper when burnt produces limited smoke but it highly aromatic. It was popularly used in ancient times for the ritual purification of temples. The smoke was said to aid clairvoyance and to aid contact with the otherworld. Juniper burning was used in Central Europe to cast out witchcraft and to cleanse places of evil spirits.

Alcoholic Use
The illicit stills of the Highland whiskey distillers were powered by juniper fuel. Hidden away in the glens the smoke produced from the juniper was minimal and the outdoors wafted away the aromatic fragrances which meant detection by the Excisemen was a harder task. 
Today, some whiskey distillers still use juniper berries during a first distillation of  a new ‘still’ though this may be more for traditional and ritualistic purposes than purely for flavouring the casks.

Use in gin
Highland juniper berries were collected for centuries and were carted to the markets in Inverness and Aberdeen to be sent on to Dutch gin distillers.
Though not so plentiful nowadays juniper berries are still used in many different drinks worldwide.  

Herbal and Aromatherapy Use 
Along with natural juniper oils, the berries and other parts of the plant are used in the production of herbal medicines, aromatherapy oils and for other ‘antiseptic/bathroom’ related products.

Current studies revolve around the fact that juniper possibly releases insulin from the pancreas (hence alleviating hunger) and could be used for some types of medical complaints, like particular forms of diet related diabetes.

Here's an added bonus today! Enjoy a Sunday Selection from my current writing and in particular look out for that juniper:

It's A.D. 84. Location: north east Britannia (current Aberdeenshire). Enya, Nith and Feargus are seeking news of Enya's brother and cousin who have not been seen since the disastrous battle against the forces of General Agricola at Beinn na Ciche. Their task is not an easy one as they have to avoid the marauding patrols of the Roman legions. 

Nith returned to the dilapidated roundhouse late the following morning. Sending her a warning call from a little distance away he waited for her reply before entering the decaying dwelling. Regardless of the bad news he had to share with Enya, he could tell from her concerned expression that Feargus could not travel that day.
“The north bank of the river is crawling with groups of Roman auxiliaries. Enya, I cannot be sure that a patrol will not come this way.”
The hint of tears welling in her eyes were dashed aside as she fussed about adding some more wood to the low burning fire in the centre of the room. Her words were venomous, grimly delivered to the weak flames she produced with the wooden switch used to poke the embers. “I detest those bastard invaders more and more come every new dawn!”
He looked over to the makeshift bed where Feargus lay asleep. Placing his spear and sword near to hand he slipped down onto one of the logs he had brought in to sit on the previous night. “We are too near their new encampment to be safe from foraging patrols.”
The look she sent him was one of weird satisfaction. “Then they will find as little, or as much, as I did. This farmstead has been abandoned for many seasons. There are no wandering hens or pigs gone wild and they will find no grain stores either.”
Enya passed him a handful of juniper berries and hazelnuts. “I can pick plenty of these when I find them but you, as well as anyone, know that my hunting skills are only good for killing men and not beasts for the spit.”
Nith swallowed down a smile before popping some of the berries into his mouth.  He knew too well that when hungry Enya could be very snippy. He glanced over to Feargus. “How is he?”   
“His leg swelling is much worse this morning though I have re-wrapped it with a different herb poultice and I have prayed, and prayed some more, to the goddess Rhianna to ease his pain.”
“He has a fever?” Realising he was starving, he grabbed up another handful of berries and nuts from the batch she had piled onto a bit of cloth that lay on a flat stone next to the fireside. It was poor fare but he knew that those particular berries were always good for staving off hunger.
“Aye, he has that too, though I managed to get a feverfew infusion into him.”
Biting down on some nuts he mumbled around them. “He looks peaceful enough. Has he been sleeping since I headed out at dawn?”
Enya nodded before she padded over to the cot. “He is peaceful now but earlier he was very restless, his sleep disturbed.”
After a quick spread of her open palms to Feargus’ cheeks Enya continued her whispering when she settled back down beside him. “He feels much cooler now.”
He looked askance at her. The words made her grey eyes look less anxious as she absently clutched at his arm. A tiny smile curving her lips brought warmth to him that he knew was nothing to do with the flames in front of him. Animation quickened her next words.
“Nith. After you left, I realised Feargus was fevered. Leaving him alone was risky but I went back to the woods. I remembered trampling around some feverfew plants last night when I walked around those bodies. I picked some of the feverfew this morning. The leaves were past their best now that it is after Samhain but I think they were worth a try.”
“If you knew how to use the plant then it will surely help, Enya” He was not in all honesty convinced, knowing very little about which plants the healers used, but Enya clearly needed reassurance.
Her sparkle continued. “I looked again in the daylight and came to the same conclusion as we made last night. Those people were definitely not killed by a Roman enemy. The murderous coward who felled them did not look them in the eye.”
“Do you still think it was only one warrior?”
Her eyes glittered and the clutch at his arm intensified. “From the tracks around the area, including our own, I can only think it was one other person who was in that glade.”
He curled his palm over hers and returned a gentle squeeze. “Enya. That means he, or she, may not be far away. We must be very careful when we meet strangers.”
He hated to see the doubt clouding her soft gray eyes and did not want to make her even more insecure but he could not hold back his words as he looked over to their friend who was stirring in the corner. “We really should move on.”
“Aye, we should but I will not leave him.”
Her expression softened while he held her gaze for a few moments before she rose to check on Feargus.

For as long as he had known her, Enya had always been loyal to those she loved and on this occasion she was no different. He was not sure how that acknowledgement made him feel but regret was part of it. The rest he was not ready to think about. Instead practicalities were more important. “I will watch from the crest of the knoll. That should give me ample time to warn you if they come anywhere near here.”


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