Tired of the same old fruits and vegetables? Looking for a new challenge? Maybe you could try making your own gin. The plant you need is the common juniper, Juniperus communis. Although the drink is a Dutch invention — the word ‘gin’ is a corruption of the Dutch name for juniper — the British embraced it with great enthusiasm in the eighteenth century and turned it into a major business.
Although common juniper is a single species, this shrubby evergreen varies widely in its growing patterns, from a ground cover to a tree that tops 36 feet. The growing needs of the cultivars are equally various, but almost all of them are tough customers that will adapt to a wide range of soils and climate zones.
Various parts of the pungently aromatic plants have long been used medicinally and are mentioned in countless legends, primarily as aids for warding off evil spirits. But it is the plant’s berries that provide an essential ingredient in gin (as well as providing flavoring for marinades and sauces).
Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, so you must have both if you want berries. The 1/4-inch fruit take two years to ripen, turning from green to bluish purple. Both the immature and mature berries may appear on the plant simultaneously, so take care when you gather your harvest.
Junipers grow easily as long as the soil they are in is well drained. While at their best in dry, sunny spots, they will tolerate light shade. Nobody’s perfect, though, and junipers are favorite prey for a number of pests and diseases. Before you buy one that catches your fancy, ask the nursery about its ability to fight off these afflictions.
Harvesting juniper berries: Juniper berries should be harvested when they have ripened to a handsome, dark purple-blue. Ripe and unripe berries may be on the plant at the same time, but harvest only the ripe ones. Before you add the berries to your soups or stews, air-dry them until they shrivel and turn black.