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Common juniper

Juniper berries are famously used to flavour gin. In fact, the word 'gin' comes from the French word for both the drink and the berry itself - genièvre.

Berries of common juniper

Berries of common juniper (Juniperus communis)

About Kew's common juniper

In Britain, junipers often live to 200 years old, and to over 500 years in other climates. The specimen at Kew is therefore a young tree, which explains its small size. As a common juniper it will eventually grow to be up to 10 m tall, but other subspecies remain shrub-like, even, in exposed places, growing low and wide like gorse or heather on a heath.

Take a closer look

  • Look at the needle-like leaves – notice how they are arranged in whorls of three. There is a white band on the inner surface – this is what is technically called a 'stomatal band'. It's a dense group of microscopic holes through which gases are exchanged.
  • Unlike many trees, the girth of the juniper's trunk doesn't increase much with age. The tree grows slowly, as little as a few centimetres a year, so without counting its growth rings it is almost impossible to calculate how old it is.

Tree biology

Tough and adaptable, the juniper is found in many varied habitats in the UK alone. Globally, it spreads from the Arctic Circle to Asia and many places in between – the largest range of any woody plant.

The small flowering cones first become small, hard and green berries which take up to three years to ripen to a dark purple colour. If gin-making humans don't get there first, birds eat the berries and then distribute the indigestible seeds through their droppings.

Cultivation and uses

Juniper's astringent berries are too bitter to eat raw and are usually sold dried to flavour meats, sauces, and stuffings. Globally, juniper crops up as a flavour in several famous drinks including a traditional Finnish ale (sahti), the Slovak national tipple (Borovička) and, of course, gin.

The tree is too small to have much commercial timber use but its slow growth makes for strength, density and decorative patterns of growth rings, so it is sometimes used in traditional crafts. 

Less well known is that the ancient Egyptians mixed the liquid from juniper leaves with cedar oil to embalm their dead.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Juniperus communis
  • Family: Cupressaceae
  • Place of origin: North America and Eurasia
  • Conservation status: Least Concern
  • Date planted: 1999
  • Height: 1.2 m