Wednesday Weed – Juniper

Photo One by Krzysztof Golik, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Juniper (Juniperus communis) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when the ice ages carpeted the British Isles thousands of years ago, it spelled the demise of many plants that are still common in mainland Europe (though to be fair, we are one of the world’s moss and liverwort hotspots!) We were left with only two tough native conifers – the Scots pine and this plant beloved of gin-drinkers everywhere, juniper. This is the most widespread of all conifers, growing in the temperate Northern Hemisphere right around the globe. More locally, I have seen several used as low growing structural plants in the front gardens of East Finchley, but left to its own devices, juniper can reach a height of 10 metres and live for up to 200 years. It is a spiky, tough plant, a member of the Cypress family, and is much beloved by many birds who rely on it for dense cover (such as the goldcrest, firecrest and black grouse) and for its berries (fieldfares, redwings, blackbirds and ring ouzels).

Just to digress here for a moment, the smell of gin reminds me of when my Dad, a gin distiller who made Gordon’s gin, used to take us to visit the distillery, then on Goswell Road. The area where the ingredients for the flavouring were kept always had that medicinal twang of juniper, along with mace, orris root and lots of other things that were part of the secret recipe. It seemed like a magician’s laboratory, with the massive vats towering above us. It was a bonded warehouse, which meant that it was subject to very strict regulation and frequent inspections, but that didn’t stop some of the warehousemen from trying to steal the raw gin – one had a go by attaching hot water bottles inside his trousers and filling them with the alcohol. Sadly, it was so strong that it ate through the rubber, and the would-be smuggler was left with wet legs and no job.

Historically, gin was seen as a drink for women (hence ‘mother’s ruin’) and Hogarth’s engravings showed it as a drink of the poor and dissolute. It had a strong reputation as a substance which could bring on an abortion,  which didn’t help. In Lothian, a juniper-induced miscarriage was known as ‘giving birth under the savin (juniper) tree.

By the time Dad was making it, gin had become rather more chic, and these days you can’t move for artisan gins and small producers knocking out various limited-edition products.I recently saw that Gordon’s are making a zero-alcohol gin. Dad would have been horrified.

William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, (1750-1751)

Anyway, back to juniper. This is a dioecious plant, which means that there are male junipers and female junipers. Only the females have the berries, while the males have these interesting ‘pollen cones’. The berries take more than a year to ripen (well, the plant does grow in some very cold places) and so you can often see the green unripe and the blue ripe berries on the same bush, as in photo one above.

Photo Two by Bff, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Male pollen cones (Photo Two)

Native plants often come with a whole raft of folklore, and juniper is no exception. It was thought to deter the devil and any witches who might be hanging around, and it was hung from the lintel on May Day and especially at Halloween. In Mediterranean areas it was believed that if a witch saw a branch of juniper she would be compelled to stop and count the needles, so hopefully that would give the inhabitants time to leave. If you dreamed of gathering juniper berries in winter, you would prosper, and the berries themselves could signify the birth of a baby boy. And then, courtesy of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, there is the miracle of the juniper bush.

Burning juniper wood gives off a strongly aromatic smoke, and this was used to cleanse houses of evil spirits every year, and when the Black Death came, houses and their inhabitants were sometimes fumigated at the same time. In Scotland, the inhabitants were then revived with whisky (and very sensible too).

It’s also believed that when Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus were on the run from Herod’s murderous soldiers, their exhausted donkey was hidden by a helpful juniper tree, so there is even a Christmas connection. In some parts of Italy, juniper is hung in stables and cattlesheds to protect the animals within, and when settlers moved to the US, the custom went with them – some coffeeshops even prepare a festive juniper-flavoured latte. Well, it makes a change from the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latter.

Photo Three by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Juniper seedling (Photo Three)

And finally, a poem. I have chosen the second stanza from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’, because I think it is a masterpiece that rewards attention. It is never completely teased-out, but it contains such breath-taking moments. There are layers on layers here, but I think you can take it just as it is and let the visions form in your head. The first four lines are worth the price of entry! You can read the whole thing here.

Ash Wednesday by T.S Eliot (Part 2)

II
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been
contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each
other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Krzysztof Golik, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Bff, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Juniper

  1. Amanda Scott

    What a fascinating and informative post! Thank you. I came across the prostrate juniper subspecies when I was living near The Lizard in Cornwall, where they’ve done much to restore it. And, of course, I’ve been known to drink a little gin…

    Reply
  2. John

    I am beginning to find your ‘Wednesday Weed’ posts rather addictive m’dear. I thoroughly enjoy the information gleaned about the featured ‘weed’ and, as always, it is always accompanied with that ‘little bit extra’ that makes your post so much more enjoyable. So a huge thankyou is in order m’thinks for your Wednesday weed’ posts m’dear.

    Reply

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