Juniperus / Jeneverbes

Juniperus is the world’s most widespread genus in the Cypress family (Cupressaceae).1 Juniperus communis, known as common juniper or, simply, juniper, is the main species found in the cooler regions of Europe, although it is also native to temperate Asia and North America.2,3 Juniper varies in shape and size and can be a dense evergreen shrub, prostrate or creeping, or a small tree that grows to 20 feet in height.1,2,3 The leaves are dark green to blue-green and sharply pointed.1 The glaucous blue female cone is called the fruit or berry, and it grows to ¼ to ½ inch in diameter and is blue or reddish in its second year.1,4 The cone usually matures in the third year and has 3 seeds.1 Currently, the berry and the oil extracts from the berry are the parts that are used commercially. The berry is steam distilled after fermentation or without fermentation to extract the essential oil.2

History and Cultural Significance

Many Native American tribes of North America have utilized various parts of J. communis for a wide range of ailments.5 A decoction of the berries has been used for lung and venereal disease by the Blackfoot tribe. The Woodland Cree smoked the blue berries for asthma and have made a decoction of the green berries for sore backs caused by kidney trouble. A combination of the berries with kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Ericaceae) leaves or balsam has been decocted, strained and used for tuberculosis by the Carrier tribe. The Inupiat have used the berries alone or as an infusion, or a decoction of the berries, needles and twigs, to prevent and treat colds and flu. A compound decoction of the berries has been used by the Kwakiutl for diarrhea. The Upper Tanana have used both the raw fruit and a decoction of the fruit and branches for colds, coughs, and urinary disorders. The Cheyenne have utilized an infusion of the fleshy cones for coughs, fevers, tickles in the throat or tonsillitis, and also as a sedative. They have also chewed the cones and have taken steam baths with an infusion of the cones as a cold remedy. The Hanaksiala have prepared heated poultices of the branch and berry paste, which they have applied to wounds and cuts. While the method of preparation is not specified, both the Okanagon and the Thompson tribes have used the berries for urinary disorders, and the Micmac have used the cones for ulcers. A compound preparation made with the berries and unspecified other herbs has been used for urinary tract disorders by the Potawatomi.5

In Western traditional medicine, juniper berry preparations have been used to relieve flatulence and indigestion and to stimulate the appetite.6 Due to their reputation as having a stimulating effect on appetite, juniper berries have been used traditionally as a flavoring in sauerkraut.6 The berries have been eaten to relieve rheumatism6 and were made into topical ointments for aching joints and muscles.7 A 70% alcohol extract of juniper berries, called spirit of juniper, has been used to treat dropsy (edema), intestinal pain,8 and lack of appetite.6 Juniper berry has been utilized to treat colic, cystitis,7 some forms of cancer, as a steam inhalation to treat bronchitis, and as an extract to treat snakebites and intestinal worms.2 Juniper berry oil has been used even in veterinary medicine, mixed with lard and applied to wounds to ease irritation from fly infestation.8 Juniper berry has been used as a diuretic9,10,11 and to battle bad breath.10

Commercially, juniper berries are used as flavoring agents in teas, beers (genevrette), liqueurs (ginepro), alcoholic bitters, and gin.2,4,9 The word ‘gin’ may be either a shortened form of the Dutch genever, which is derived from the Latin juniperus,9 or derived from the term “Holland’s Geneva” as the Dutch-invented drink was first known.12 One legend suggests that a Dutch chemist developed juniper extract as a diuretic known as ginever, which was later popularized by the British as simply gin. The extracts or oils are used in alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, baked goods, candy, frozen dairy desserts, gelatins, meat products, and puddings.2,4 Juniper berry oil is used as a fragrance component in creams, detergents, lotions, perfumes, and soaps.2,9

Juniper berries and their steam-distilled oil were listed as official medicines in the first edition of the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) in 1820 and stayed in the USP until 1960, at which time they were removed upon recognition of their potential irritating effect on the kidneys.13 A critical review of the literature from 1844 to 1993 concluded that observed nephrotoxic effects associated with juniper berries and oil may have been confused with observations of the possible adulteration of juniper oil in veterinary medicine with turpentine.14 Official US quality standards for juniper berry oil are available in the currently valid edition of the Food Chemicals Codex.15 Juniper fruit remains an official article in the currently valid editions of the Mexican Herbal Pharmacopoeia16 and European Pharmacopoeia.17 Pharmacopoeial-quality juniper fruit consists of the dried ripe cone berry containing minimum 10 ml/kg of essential oil, with maximum 5% unripe or discolored cone berries; and identification must be confirmed by macroscopic, microscopic, organoleptic, and thin-layer chromatography (TLC) tests.

In 1984, the German Commission E approved the use of juniper dried fruit (for aqueous infusions and decoctions, alcoholic extracts, and wine extracts) or essential oil to relieve dyspepsia (disturbed digestion or indigestion),3,18 but did not approve juniper as a single-ingredient aquaretic (an agent that increases urine flow, without affecting electrolyte balance). Juniper is said to possess antirheumatic, antiseptic, carminative, diuretic, and stomachic properties.2,7 In 2008, the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) published a draft monograph, which, once final, will be relevant for traditional herbal medicinal product (THMP) registrations in all EU member states, including Germany. The public comment deadline for the draft monograph is May 15, 2009.19 The EMEA draft monograph proposes therapeutic indications for juniper fruit or preparations of juniper (e.g. herbal tea, 1:1 liquid extract with 25% ethanol, and 1:5 tincture with 45% ethanol) that are intended as traditional herbal medicinal products to increase urine for flushing of the urinary tract as an adjuvant in minor urinary tract complaints, and as traditional herbal medicinal products for symptomatic relief of digestive disorders such as dyspepsia and flatulence. Also in 2008, Health Canada published its final monograph for juniper fruit for the purpose of natural health product (NHP) compendial product license applications. In the final monograph, Health Canada approved traditional uses of the dried fruit or preparations of the fruit (e.g. herbal tea infusion, 1:1 fluidextract in 25% alcohol, and/or 1:5 tincture in 4045% alcohol) as a diuretic, as a urinary tract antiseptic to help relieve benign urinary tract infections, as a carminative to help relieve digestive disturbances such as flatulent dyspepsia, and as a stomachic to aid digestion and stimulate appetite.20

Juniper fruit is also used in the Indian Systems of Medicine, and thus there are official quality standards monographs along with approved therapeutic actions and uses available in the currently valid editions of the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India21 and Unani Pharmacopoeia of India,22 respectively.

Modern Research

While there are in vitro and animal studies that suggest the potential usefulness of juniper berry, human clinical studies on juniper are lacking. One study of a mouthwash that included juniper, nettles (Uritica dioica, Urticaceae), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium, Asteraceae) showed no effect on plaque growth and gingival health.23

Future Outlook

Most of the juniper berry supply for Europe and North America comes from wild collection in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro, of which increasing amounts are being wild harvested under organic certification (J. Brinckmann, e-mail, February 26, 2009). India produces juniper berries (found growing in the Himalayas from Kumaon westwards ranging from the altitude of 1500-4250 m), but this is mainly for domestic consumption in the Indian systems of traditional medicine. Unfortunately, accurate figures on the export of juniper berries are difficult to obtain because the harmonized system tariff code (HS Code) assigned to juniper fruit is shared with fennel fruit, which confounds import-export trade analysis of juniper.

—Gayle Engels


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