“The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it.”
Happy (belated) New Year!
Today, my wildlings are back at school, and I am celebrating the beginning of the new year with a simmer pot containing dried juniper berries, pine needles, orange slices, cinnamon, rosemary, and cloves. (You can read more about it on my Instagram post HERE.)
Did you know I wrote an article all about juniper folklore for the recent Winter Botanical Anthology? I’m case you missed it, and because juniper is such a lovely botanical for this time of year, I thought I’d share that article with you here today!
Though it’s perhaps not the first evergreen one thinks of in connection to winter, juniper has a long and storied history that often ties it to the colder parts of the year.
Juniper represents hope and warmth, thriving in overwrought soil where other trees can’t. It is symbolically, elementally, and astrologically associated with fire, ruled by the Sun and closely tied to Mars. Juniper also symbolizes eternal life.
The juniper tree’s berry-like cones and twigs provide food for animals, often the only available winter sustenance. They offer culinary and medicinal uses for humans, and there are many ritualistic applications for juniper’s wood and berries, as well. It is quite interesting how juniper’s folk associations mirror its medicinal uses.
The age-old use of juniper medicinally for healing, relieving stagnation, and protection from diseases probably stems in large part from the berries’ diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties. One of the most pleasant ways to administer these medicinal benefits came in the form of gin, the juniper berry liquor that dates back as far as the 11th century, as well as medicinal juniper twig beer.
In accord with these historical medical practices, juniper was—and still is—used in folk practice for protection. For disease, poison, plague, spirits, demons, and especially thievery, juniper has been a potent ward.
Often, smoke and charms are the vehicle by which juniper performs this protective service. Many cultures, including ancient Greeks and Egyptians, used juniper incense in this manner. Various types of protective amulets and charms were made from juniper berries, as well. The trees have even been long used in some places as Yule or Christmas trees or greenery for some added protection.
The Scottish have a long-standing winter tradition. The day after Hogmanay, the celebration of New Year’s eve, women would perform a saining, a smoke cleansing of the entire house with smoldering juniper branches. The aromatic smoke was carried and dispersed throughout the house for blessings, purification, and protection for the coming year; the same was performed through barns and to purify livestock.
Several species of juniper are also native to the Americas, as reflected by juniper’s presence in many indigenous Americans’ traditions and tales. Among those, the Hopi, Navajo, Blackfoot, and Seneca tell legends surrounding the tree or its berries. A Seneca tale involves junipers and other evergreens standing up to old man winter so spring may return.
While winter persists, perhaps juniper is a plant to explore a deeper relationship with. Whether it’s branches in greenery that decorates the home, fragrant incense, or even a sip of gin, inviting juniper in is a way to connect to this plant’s long history.