Juniper

(Juniperus communis) This is a protective tree, indeed the very symbol of protection (Leyel. 1937). The wood and berries have been used all over Europe as a protection against evil influences and in containing witchcraft (Westermarck). Juniper canopied Elijah in his flight from Jezebel, and there is a legend that it saved the lives of the Virgin and Jesus when they fled into Egypt. In order to screen her son from Herod's men, the Virgin hid him under certain plants and trees, which naturally received her blessing in return for the shelter given. Among these plants, the juniper was believed to have been particularly invested with the power of putting to flight the spirits of evil, and of destroying charms (Friend. 1883). Italian stables are protected from demons and thunderbolts by a sprig of juniper (Fernie). So they are in north Germany, where "Frau Wachholder", the juniper spirit, is invoked to discover thieves, apparently by means of the bending down of certain of its branches (Elworthy. 1895). Like box, juniper growing by the door protected the house from witchcraft, for the witch had to stop and count every leaf before proceeding (M Baker. 1977). One could hang some in the beehive, too, to protect the bees from adverse magic (Boland. 1977), and in the far north of Scotland, a baby's teething ring would be made from juniper wood, more for its protective qualities than anything else (Rorie. 1994). In France, branches of juniper act as a Christmas tree; they are put round the chimney breast, and presents for the children are hung from them (Salle). In Italy, too, juniper is hung up at Christmas time (Elworthy. 1895).

In the Highlands of Scotland, juniper was specially used for "saining", a form of blessing, on New Year's Day. Branches were set alight, and carried through the house, the smoke spreading into a thick, suffocating cloud (McNeill, 1961), produced by closing up every window, crevice and keyhole in the house, for the smoke, besides protecting the house and its occupants from evil influenes, was also supposed to have the ability to dispel infection (Camp). Juniper was burned before the cattle, too (Davidson. 1955), or it was boiled in water, to be sprinkled over them. Some ceremony was necessary before the juniper could be used. It had to be pulled by the roots, with its branches made into four arms, and taken between the five fingers, while an incantation was spoken, given in translation as:

I will pull the bounteous yew

Through the five bent ribs of Christ,

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,

Against drowning, danger and confusion

(Campbell. 1902).

As the charm makes clear, it was regarded as a special protection both by sea and by land, and no house in which it was taken would take fire. It was used for saining, not only at New Year, but also at Shrovetide, and as a protective against the evil eye (Banks. 1946).

After all this, it almost goes without saying that one should not cut down a juniper. According to Welsh belief, he who does so will die within the year, and aged junipers are preserved (Trevelyan). Grimm recognized it as a wishing tree in German belief, and pointed out the fact that it is known as the Tree of Wishes in India. Another German belief was that a kind of spirit called Hollen was connected with juniper trees, obviously of the helpful fairy type. When small children get ill the parents carry wool and bread to a juniper growing on a neighbour's ground, and they say:

Ihr Hollen und Hollinen,

Hier bring ich euch was zu spinnen,

Und was zu essen.

Ihr sollt spinnen und essen

Und meines Kindes vergessen (Runeberg).

It is unlucky to dream of the tree itself, especially if the dreamer is sickly; but to dream of gathering the berries, if it is winter, is a sign of prosperity to come. To dream of the actual berries means that you will shortly arrive at great honours, and become an important person. To the married, it foretells the birth of a male child (Dyer. 1889). Another superstition, from Somerset, is that you should never tell a secret by a juniper tree. Everyone will know it within a week (Tongue. 1965).

The wood was sometimes burned indoors (without any idea of saining) to give rooms a sweet smell (Grigson. 1955), and in Scotland the young twigs used to be burnt for smoking hams, giving them a slightly turpentine-like flavour (C P Johnson). Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, tells that "the smoke of juniper is in great request with us to sweeten our chambers", and Ben Jonson has: "He doth sacrifice twopence in juniper to her every morning before she rises, to sweeten the room by burning it" (Rimmel). Sprays were often strewn over floors so as to give out, when trodden on, the aroma which was supposed to promote sleep; Queen Elizabeth's bedchamber was sweetened with them (Fernie).

Juníperus gave the French name genièvre, which became geneva, or gin for short, since proper Hollands gin has its flavour from juniper berries.

They are used for Steinhäger, too (Brouk), and there are records of their use in the Hebrides for flavouring whisky (Murdoch McNeill). There is a French beer called Genièvre (Leyel. 1937), surely flavoured with the berries, while Elizabeth Raper wrote down a recipe for porter that required two pints of the berries to give it the proper flavour.

It has been quite important for medical uses since ancient times, for the berries were commonly used by the Greeks and Romans, as well as by Arab Physicians. The berries and the essential oil from them are said to be diuretic, and the juice from the berries is still used in Irish country medicine as such (Logan). It is also recommended for cystitis (Schauenberg & Paris), and a tea can be made from them, or even small pieces of wood, to be used as a diuretic (Flück). In much the same way, the Cree Indians stewed the berries and ate them for the same purpose (Corlett), and infused the root for cases of gravel. Oil of juniper, a carminative, has also been used in domestic medicine for rheumatism (two or three drops on a lump of sugar every morning) (V G Hatfield. 1994). Juniper is an American domestic medicine for colds and colic (Bergen. 1899), and Evelyn praised it, "... the berries swallow'd only instantly appease the wind-collic, and in decoction most sovereign against an inveterate cough. They are of rare effect, being stamp'd in beer; and in some northern countries, they use a decoction of the berries as we do coffee and tea". But this use for coughs is ancient indeed, for "Dioscorides reporteth that this being drunke is a remedie against infirmities of the chest, coughs, windinesse, gripings, and poisons .; the decoction of these berries is singular good against an old cough, and against that with which children are now and again extremely troubled, called the Chin-cough" (Gerard).

But the claims made for juniper have been much more ambitious; it was even reckoned at one time to be rejuvenating (Gerard), and there are a number of notices of its power as a counter-poison. Pomet noted their ability "to prevent infectious Airs", in connection with the French habit of his time to "make comfits of [the berries] which they call St Roch's Comfits, and carry them in their Pockets, that they may chew two or three of them in a Morning, to prevent infection, and make the Breath sweet". In the Highlands of Scotland, a child cutting its first teeth was given a piece ofjuniper wood to chew, to prevent toothache, it was said (Polson. 1926). Scottish travellers used it for exactly the same purpose, but they thought there was something in juniper twigs that cut the teeth quicker (MacColl & Seeger).

Juniperus californica > CALIFORNIAN JUNIPER

Juniperus communis > JUNIPER

Juniperus monosperma > ONE-SEEDED JUNIPER

Juniperus sabina > SAVIN

Juniperus virginiana > VIRGINIAN JUNIPER

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