Sedona called me back this winter to gather three specific medicines; juniper, chaparral, and piñon pitch. The American Southwest holds an abundance of botanical medicine. When I moved to Tucson over thirty years ago as Director of Resources for World Health, a non-profit organization supporting Indigenous healers, I became fortunate to work and study with native elders. Even after moving back east to Appalachia, I can still be found making a yearly pilgrimage back west to gather medicinal herbs.
This post is dedicated to juniper, which has an affinity for the kidneys. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the winter season and emotion of fear corresponds with Kidney and the Water Element. The color that corresponds with the Water Element is the same bluish-black shade of Juniper’s berry-like, female cones.
Juniper berries may take up to three years to mature. The berries I collected were fat and ready for picking. The impermeable seed coat protects seeds that may last for years and can be dispersed over long distances. Juniper is a non-flowering gymnosperm, or naked-seeded plant, making it one of the oldest and most primitive plants on the planet, like spruce and ephedra.
I have primarily used juniper berries as a culinary spice in stock, soup, or stew, especially stews that include beef, turkey, or wild game. Four berries, dried or fresh, replace 1 bay leaf in a recipe. Juniper is the predominant flavor in Gin, which was my English mother’s alcoholic beverage of choice. It is also commonly used for flavoring and preserving pickled foods. The berry has a smell reminiscent of pine, and flavor energetic that is warming and pungent, and slightly bitter-sweet*.
I also use juniper essential oil in a diffuser when anyone in my house becomes, or threatens to become sick. It has been used by Native Americans and the ancient Greeks to combat epidemics. As recently as World War Two, juniper was diffused in hospital rooms to reduce infections, and before that during outbreaks of the Plague. Juniper’s antimicrobial, antiviral, and antiseptic actions have been well studied, and it’s volatile oil is valuable for respiratory infections and congestion.
If you have visited a Navajo hogan or Pueblo home, juniper may have been the first thing you smelled. In addition to burning wood for heat and in the cook stove, branches are placed on hot coals to fumigate the house with juniper smoke. The resulting ash is used to add calcium to bread, tortillas, and pancakes made from blue corn flour. The Navajo are said to sweep their tracks with boughs so that death will not follow them. Navajo women painstakingly drill holes in the berries and make necklaces to wear for protection.
Through my own Celtic roots I carry a memory of rites performed on the last day of the year, what would be our Gregorian calendar New Year, when burning juniper smoke accompanied by prayers, cleansed, blessed, and protected everyone in the household. I have always kept a few berries in my medicine bag for purification and protection from fear. Juniper branches have also been called, “boughs of the supernatural.”
While hiking and connecting with juniper in Sedona, I became curious about which species to collect. Piñon-Juniper woodlands are expanding down from the hilltops and their abundance amazed me. Scientists believe this unnatural and invasive spread of western juniper is aided by decades of livestock grazing, unnatural fire cycles, and the invasion of exotic species. Juniper is a genus of conifers containing approximately sixty species. It is member of the cypress family. With so many species and common names like; Chinese juniper, Greek juniper, Phoenician juniper, East African juniper, Himalayan juniper, Russian juniper; Spanish, Tibetan, Mexican, and California juniper, just to name a few, I had a powerful need to know which ones grew in Sedona near the Mogollon Rim.
While juniper is native to North America, Europe, and Asia, the berries that are made into tinctures, or purchased as a culinary spice, are Juniperus communis, “common juniper,” or “alpine juniper,” and are mostly sourced from Eastern Europe. The two most common New World species found in Sedona are Juniperus deppeana – “alligator juniper,” with distinctive bark unlike other junipers and resembling alligator skin; and Juniperus osteosperma – “Utah juniper,” whose shoots are fairly thick compared to most junipers. Berries from both species are edible.
This year while in Sedona I especially wanted to connect more deeply with juniper’s medicine after learning that a dear friend had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Juniper has many uses, but I knew it would take some digging to learn about Juniperi fructus in a medical herbalism context.
The list of herbal actions for juniper is long with both internal and topical applications. These are well known and documented including: topical for joint pain, sore muscles, coughs and congestion; a tonic for the uterus to relieve PMS water retention and menstrual cramps; diuretic to increase urine output, reducing edema and high blood pressure; and antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and antiseptic properties. Juniperus communis is listed in Native American Medicinal Plants by Daniel E. Moerman, as one of ten key species with the greatest number of uses by the most Native American groups.
The Chinese, Native Americans, and old European cultures regarded juniper as a blood purifying kidney tonic. This points to the TCM Five Element relationship between Water (Kidney), Wood (Liver), and Earth (Spleen). The Kings Dispensatory suggests that kidney infections (pyelo-nephritis, and pyelitis), and chronic bladder infections, especially in older people, are relieved by juniper. Also according to the Kings Dispensatory, “Uncomplicated renal hyperemia is cured by it.” Renal hyperemia is excess blood in the kidneys.
My friend had been diagnosed with a tumor on his Kidney after passing large amounts of blood in his urine. I wondered about juniper’s cytotoxic (anti-cancer) properties found to be useful in the treatment of some cancers. My intuition told me that it was no accident I had come to harvest juniper in the Southwest, where my friend also lives, so recently following his diagnosis. Could junipers stimulating, softening, and dissolving qualities, along with cytotoxic and astringent properties help to shrink my friend’s tumor?
Almost every article I found on juniper berry carried a warning against its use in the presence of kidney disease or inflammation. Peter Holmes, doctor of Oriental Medicine describes juniper as follows:
Dispels wind/damp/cold, stimulates circulation. Drains damp. Relieves kidney fluid congestion (lower body edema and puffy eyes). Stimulates immunity, reduces infection, antidotes poison, promotes tissue repair. Used as a preventative in epidemics, and for chronic viral and bacterial infections. Best used in conditions of cold and damp and for treating Spleen and Kidney Yang deficiency. Tonifies yang, stimulates will power and increases physical stamina. This means that juniper should be used in cold conditions only. Kidney also relates to how we manage and process our fears.
Richard Whelan, Medical and Registered Herbalist, however, questioned these warnings. He found research that supported the use of juniper for the kidneys, and traced the source of misinformation back to 1898. Experiments done at that time were with animals using high doses of juniper essential oil. Recent toxicological studies on rats using high doses of juniper oil found no damage to their kidneys. Whelan concluded that once a caution like that gets published, no one thinks to question it with every subsequent author quoting the previous one.
The cautions about juniper being contraindicated in people with kidney disease are overstated, the potential for juniper to over-stimulate kidney function is not.
Eric Yarnell, ND, RH, stated that juniper is not nephrotoxic:
During the Eclectic era of herbalism (mid 1800s–1900s), writings discussed that juniper was specifically used for kidney disease. At some point following that era, a belief came about that juniper is toxic to the kidneys and is contraindicated in patients with kidney disease. This belief persists today, though it’s basis is highly dubious. There are a variety of clinical situations in which juniper is a specific and valuable remedy, and shunning it out of irrational fear is not helpful to patients.
I have seen much miraculous healing in my life. Could my friend be healed of his cancer using juniper? Perhaps junipers encroachment on human civilization is trying to get our attention with a message that its medicine is needed at this time. I believe that when the Western Mechanistic Medicine model is integrated with the Eastern Energetic Model of Medicine that came before it, our possibilities for healing will exponentially increase. At present it is an unknown. More research is needed. When we have support and funding for independent research along with a health care system that recognizes the need and efficacy of alternative healing modalities only then we will build the healing centers and hospitals of the future. It is my hope and vision that the answers will come. Perhaps Juniper’s gift of medicine and food holds even greater possibilities for healing in our future. Healing that takes place in the context of relationship as described by the wisdom of the Chinese Five Elements, where we “do no harm” and protect the next seven generations.
Essential oil not to be used internally during pregnancy. Juniper berry essential oil is FDA approved for limited internal use. May stimulate uterine contractions and induce miscarriage. Herbalist, Michael Moore considered juniper a uterine vasodilator. However, drinking an infusion once a day starting two weeks before due date is a good uterine tonic to prepare for labor as an alternative to blue cohosh. Check for possible allergic reaction by doing a skin patch test as some people have allergic responses to junipers.
Preparation and Dosage:
General recommended dose (unless otherwise recommended): 2g to a maximum of 10g/day of whole, crushed, or powdered berries, corresponding to 20-100mg of the essential oil, for infusions, decoctions, and alcohol extracts. Avoid long term therapeutic doses. Dosage is vital to a successful outcome. It is advisable to increase the dosage gradually, and not use it for too long. This is best done with an infusion or tincture.
Note: 1 tsp = 5 g, 1ml = 15 drops
Infusion (use crushed or ground, fresh or dried juniper berries): 3 teaspoons of berries (15g), in 2 cups of hot water (approx. 500ml), cover and let steep for 20 minutes, strain and take 1 tsp, 2-3x/day (6-10 g). Medical Herbalist, Thomas Bartram recommends 1 teaspoon of crushed berries, steeped for 30 minutes in 1 cup of freshly boiled water, strain and drink ½ to 1 cup daily for five days.
Tincture (to cleanse and strengthen the kidneys): 1:5, 1-4 ml/day in divided doses. Herb Pharm sells Juniper tincture at a recommended dosage of 611 mg (1:4, 20 drops 3x/day between meals) for 6 weeks. The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends 1:5 in 45% ethanol, 1-2 ml up to 3/day.
Essential Oil (made by steam distillation of the crushed, dried, or fermented berries is more antiseptic and detoxicant): Can be inhaled (diffused), taken orally, or massaged with a carrier oil. Orally: 20-100 mg for indigestion. 1-2 drops in a gel cap topped with olive oil. When buying juniper essential oil, look for organic, food-grade.
Note: Juniper oil distilled from ripe berries can be used safely while maintaining a healthy respect for their potency. Dosage is vital to a successful outcome. It is advisable to increase the dosage gradually, and not use it for too long. This may best be done with a tea or a tincture.
- Learn more about the Water Element in Thea’s course, Hidden Treasure: Kidney Essence and the Water Element at Five Element Academy
- *Learn more about Flavor Energetics in Thea’s course, Wisdom of the Five Flavors at Five Element Academy.
- Learn more about Ephedra (naked-seeded) and its message for humanity in Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth.
- Visit Thea’s Kitchen for her Juniper Chili recipe.
- All things Juniper on Etsy:
- Juniper Ash: SHIMA´of Navajoland and LighthouseHill
- Gemmo – Juniperus Communis by Boiron
- Pharmacognosy Journal: The Therapeutic Properties of Juniperus communi L.: Antioxidant Capacity, Bacterial growth Inhibition, Anticancer Activity and Toxicity.
- A complete list of references compiled by Richard J Whelan, Medical Herbalist, RH
- The Energetics of Western Herbs: Treatment Strategies Integrating Western and Oriental Herbal Medicine, Vol. 1 by Peter Holmes, Snow Lotus Press
- Henriette’s Herbal Homepage XX11. Diseases of the Kidneys
- South African Journal of Botany: Screening of some Juniperus extracts for the phenolic compounds and their antiproliferative actions
- Eric Yarnell, ND, RH Juniper is Not Nephrotoxic
Disclaimer: The information presented is intended for educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent disease. Individual results may vary. Please consult your doctor before starting any exercise or nutritional supplement program or before using these or any product during pregnancy or if you have a serious medical condition.