The juniper, scientifically known as Juniperus communis, is a typical plant of the Italian territory. Several species of juniper exist, and they are considered highly important from an environmental perspective due to their ability to adapt to unfavorable conditions. The juniper berries are well-known and used in traditional medicine, often carrying symbolic meanings associated with the plant.
In this article, we will introduce you to the Juniperus communis plant. Additionally, we will explore the various species found in Italy, the botanical characteristics of the common juniper, and the properties and uses of its berries.
Various Juniper Species
Juniperus identifies a genus of plants that includes approximately 60 species belonging to the botanical family Cupressaceae. In Italy, seven species are present, with the most common being Juniperus communis, also known as the common juniper. The other species of Italian junipers include:
- Oxycedrus, with its two subspecies J. oxycedrus oxycedrus and J. oxycedrus macrocarpa
- Phoenicia (Phoenician juniper)
- Juniperus sabina
- Juniperus thurifera
The different species listed are distributed across the Italian territory with varying prevalence.
Distribution of Juniper
Let’s now examine the distribution of various juniper varieties.
- Juniperus communis can be found in all regions. It has a significant presence from sea level up to 2000 meters in altitude. Specifically, it can be found in evergreen Mediterranean scrubland (0-900 meters), in mountainous regions with conifers and beech (900-2000 meters), and in sub-mountain areas with chestnut and oak (100-1000 meters).
- Nana and hemispherica prefer mountainous environments between 1500 and 2500 meters. In particular, Juniperus nana is native to the Alps, the northern and southern Apennines, while Juniperus hemispherica is found in the mountains of Sicily and the southern Apennines (Campania and Calabria).
- Juniperus phoenicia is part of the spontaneous vegetation on the Tyrrhenian coast in evergreen areas, ranging from sea level to 900 meters.
- The Oxycedrus variety is typical of coastal areas and is part of the Mediterranean scrubland.
- Juniperus sabina thrives on rocky slopes and sunny hillsides, in the inner valleys of the Alps and the central Apennines. It can be found between 1300 and 2000 meters in altitude.
- Thurifera is only present in the western Alps in border areas with France.
Characteristics of the Plant
In this discussion, we will refer to the common juniper. It is also known by various common names such as iniepro, inipru, janiparo, janipru, nietro, niperu, zanevar, zeneul, znevro, zinier. This plant is quite unique, changing its shape and adapting to various environmental and climatic conditions. For instance, in mountainous regions, it often appears as a small flattened bush that does not exceed 1 meter in height. In hilly and plain areas, it becomes a small pyramid-shaped shrub, reaching heights of up to 10 meters. In any case, it’s not uncommon to observe prostrate juniper shrubs, curved small trees, or even those lying on the ground.
The trunk of the juniper is highly branched, with rough reddish-brown bark. It is an evergreen plant, meaning it never completely loses its foliage. The leaves are typically needle-like, 1-2 cm long, dark green with a white stripe on the upper side. They are arranged in whorls of three and have a waxy coating that protects them. The juniper needles can be quite sharp, making the plant an excellent refuge for small forest animals as it is less approachable.
Flowers and Pollination
Another characteristic of Juniperus communis is that it is a dioecious species, just like cannabis sativa. This means that male and female flowers are found on separate plants. An exception to this is the species J. phoenicia, which is monoecious. Pollination is anemophilous, meaning it is carried out by the wind, which carries pollen from male to female plants. Male junipers can be identified by their more conspicuous flowering, bearing beautiful yellow flowers in April-May. Female plants have smaller flowers, and by late summer, they start to ripen the juniper berries.
Juniper berries have a very slow maturation, almost unique in nature. They mature over the course of two years. In the first year, they are small and green, irregularly shaped, and have an unpleasant taste. When fully ripe in the second year, they become round, fleshy, shiny, and have a very dark purple-blue color, with a diameter of 3-5 mm. As a result, on female juniper plants, it is common to observe both immature and ripe berries at the same time. Maturation occurs in September, but the berries persist on the branches and can be harvested throughout the autumn. Botanically, juniper is a conifer, so these “false” berries are actually cones or galbules, also known as coccole.
These “false” berries are beloved by birds, which feed on them and disperse the seeds around. The tree grows very slowly but can adapt to various climatic conditions. It is a long-lived plant, with some specimens found to be over 2000 years old. Consequently, juniper and its berries hold strong symbolic significance. Throughout ancient times and in numerous civilizations, from Magna Graecia to Celtic cultures, its use was widespread for protection and warding off negative forces.
Environmental Importance of Juniper
Juniper is one of the most important plants in our ecosystem. It is a pioneer species, and studies have shown that it was among the first to appear along coastlines due to its inherent characteristics. Juniper can withstand challenging conditions such as aridity, high sun exposure, and salinity. The wax coating on its leaves limits water loss and excessive transpiration. Moreover, the shrub has a high water-absorbing capacity, especially in environments lacking vegetative cover, thanks to its extensive root system. This combination of characteristics gives the plant a crucial ecological role, enabling it to colonize environments unfavorable to most other plant species. Therefore, these trees are used in environmental conservation strategies for repopulation and recovery.
Properties of Juniper Essential Oil
The properties of juniper are primarily found in its berries, which contain a high percentage of essential oil that can be distilled using steam. Juniper essential oil can be used both internally and externally. The berry is well-known in classical pharmacopoeia for its various properties, including diuretic, draining, and antibacterial effects. It is also an excellent aid for kidney health, stimulating urinary functions, and alleviating menstrual pains. It should be used with caution, following the instructions on the product label. For topical use, its antiseptic and astringent properties are harnessed. It is an excellent natural remedy for oily skin when applied as an ointment or mother tincture directly onto the skin. Juniper is also widely used in aromatherapy as an air purifier. The essential oil is readily available.
Traditional Uses of Juniper
In the realm of food, the most famous use of juniper and its berries is for the production of the renowned gin. This alcoholic beverage was invented by a Dutch physician in the 1600s. It is obtained through the fermentation of barley and wheat, with the addition of juniper berries. Initially, it was used to alleviate febrile symptoms in soldiers. It later became a globally famous alcoholic drink, used as a base for a wide range of cocktails. Juniper berries are harvested when they begin to wither on the plant, typically in October. If you have difficulty finding them in nature, you can find organic berries available. The berries, aside from being used to make homemade liqueurs, can be used as a seasoning for dishes with strong meat flavors. Another traditional use is in the preparation of teas, infusions, and decoctions.