Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Collecting Juniper Berries

Spring may sound like an odd time to harvest Juniper Berries, but in my experience, it's the best time. I have fond memories collecting Juniper berries with my father (just not the itchy arm part). Dad was a butcher by trade and avid cook of wild game. Juniper berries were used in ragouts, goulash and some hardy sauces.

When collecting, it's the darker, blue purple berries that you want.
These are last summer's fruit. You want 2 to 3 year old berries. They may be harder to find, yet these green/grey ones haven't ripened enough. They will be bitter and hard.

Best to leave these for next year's harvest.
Here you can see the difference up close. Rubbing them slightly before you pick them off the bush/tree, you'll see under the white coating their true colour. The darker, the better.
It takes two to three years for the berries to become blue. Don't be tempted to pick last year's berries in autumn when they start to get reddish/blue. Dad said juniper berries should be left on the evergreen overwinter. They have a more distinctive flavour, as apposed to collecting them in autumn. Perhaps the freezing temperatures have something to do with that. I'm not sure.
One of the best junipers to harvest from is Juniperus virginiana, like the one above. Also known as Eastern Red Cedar or Red Juniper. Berries are much larger and in some cases, the yield is double compared to other cultivars.

Juniperus virginiana is a sizable variety of Juniper. Standing sometimes 30 ft or higher. It has a more airy habit and very long branch network. Like all Junipers, it's evergreen foliage is quite prickly and can give off a rash when branches come in contact with bare skin. Usually, the berries are found within two feet of the branch tips. Quite easy to gather. You can also collect berries (actually cones) from Juniperus horizontalis cultivars. Especially native ones; in woodlands throughout cottage country. Their berries are smaller and yields may vary due to conditions, but they too are good for culinary uses.

Better to wear long sleeved shirts/jackets when handling the branches, just in case.

I like to wash/rub off the white/grey resin coating on the berries and then place them on a tissue and let them dry on a window sill or in a dry situation. Be sure they are firm. When washing, keep an eye on any berries that float. Floaters generally have holes or damage - toss them out. Those are 'duds' and have mainly a husk, with little flavour. Berries blacken and shrivel when fully dried.
Enjoy!

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