Today’s factismal: It can take two years for a juniper “berry” to ripen.
When is a berry not a berry? When it is actually a pine cone! The juniper is an evergreen, closely related to the redwood, cedar, and pine tree. But unlike its kin, the juniper produces cones that are filled with starch and flavor covering an indigestible seed. Where redwoods and pines rely on dry winds to disperse their seeds, the sweet and fleshy juniper cone attracts birds and other wildlife. They snack on the cone and disperse the seeds (along with a little fertilizer) as they gad about. This successful adaptation has helped the juniper to develop more than fifty different species, spread over five continents. Their native hardiness has also helped; individual junipers have been known to live as long as 2,000 years in harsh, forbidding conditions.
Though juniper leaves is used in food preparation and the wood is commonly found in furniture, the most popular part of the juniper tree is indisputably the “berry”. When it is green, this little morsel is used to flavor beer and gin; it actually gives gin its name (from the Dutch “jenever”, which means “juniper”). And when ripe, it is added to wild game and birds in order to offset the gamy taste by giving them a sharp, clean flavor. And the berries of some junipers are eaten as a snack, though experts do not recommend grabbing those in the wild as other species’ berries can have a diuretic effect.
The time it takes to produce a berry depends on the juniper species. Though some species can produce a ripe berry, ready to grow into new junipers, in as little as six months, most take 18 months to mature. But the Syrian juniper takes two years to create a ripe berry, thanks to the area’s dry conditions; the Syrian juniper is also the tallest of the junipers.
Like all of its relatives, the juniper reproduces sexually by releasing pollen. The male cones shed pollen into the air in the early to mid-spring; it is airborne and lands on female cones that then develop into berries. For most people juniper pollen is only a minor annoyance that coats their cars and turns the sky a dusky orange. However, there are a few who are allergic to the pollen; for them, junipers are more bane than blessing. If you’d like to help these folks and the scientists who are studying juniper, then head over to the Juniper Pollen Program and tell them when the junipers in your area start to shed pollen.