Quick facts

Common names: juniper, common juniper

Scientific name: Juniperus communis

Family: Cupressaceae

Origin: native

Common juniper is an evergreen conifer. Mature trees can reach a height of 10m and live for up to 200 years. Its bark is grey-brown and peels with age, and its twigs are reddish brown.

Look out for: needles that have a single pale band on the upper surface and are grey-green beneath. They are found in threes around the ridged twigs. The female cones look like blueberries.

Identified in winter by: its needles which are present all year round. Twigs are ridged.

What does juniper look like?

juniper leaves

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Leaves

The small, needle-like leaves are green with broad silver bands on the inner side, curving slightly to a sharp, prickly point.

common juniper in flower with male flowers

Credit: Blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo

Flowers

Common juniper is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Male flowers are small, yellow and globular, and grow in leaf axils near the tips of twigs.

juniper berries close-up

Credit: Armands Pharyos / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

Once pollinated by wind, the green female flowers develop into fleshy, purple, aromatic, berry-like cones. These are eaten and distributed by birds. When young, the berries are green but over 18 months or so they mature to purple-black.

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Did you know?

Burning juniper on Walpurgis Night is said to keep witches away.

Where to find juniper

Common juniper is native to the UK, Europe and much of the northern hemisphere. It thrives on chalk lowland, moorland, in rocky areas and old native-pine woodland. It is most often found as a low-growing, spreading shrub or small tree.

Value to wildlife

Common juniper provides dense cover for nesting birds, such as the goldcrest and firecrest, and, in northern upland areas, the black grouse. It is the food plant for caterpillars of many species of moth, including the juniper carpet moth, juniper pug and chestnut-coloured carpet. A number of birds eat the fruit, including the fieldfare, song thrush, mistle thrush and ring ouzel.

Wildlife which benefits from juniper:
Did you know?

Juniper berries have lots of traditional uses and were associated with love potions.

Mythology and symbolism

In some areas, juniper is considered to be a deterrent against the Devil and witches. It was hung over doorways on the eve of May Day and burnt on Halloween to ward off evil spirits. It was said that you would prosper if you dreamed of gathering juniper berries in winter, and the berries themselves signified honour or the birth of a boy.

whole dried juniper berries

Credit: Visuals Unlimited / naturepl.com

Uses of juniper

The most famous use of juniper berries is in the flavouring of gin. They have also recently become a popular ingredient in liqueurs and sauces and are used as a spice, particularly in European cuisine. The aromatic wood has a warm, sandy, golden colour and is used for wood turning and carving as well as for burning to smoke food. The berries produce an oil which can be used to aid respiratory and digestive problems, and was once considered a good method to terminate a pregnancy. The essential oil is also used in aromatherapy and perfumery.

Threats and conservation

Juniper has been declining throughout the UK in range and abundance. It is not known exactly why, but it appears that the plants are unable to regenerate successfully, a problem partially attributed to browsing of foliage by deer and rabbits. Juniper may also be affected by Phytophthora root rot and has recently been found to be susceptible to Phytophthora austrocedrae, a fungus-like organism which infects the plant via the roots and causes foliage to decline and eventually die.