Juniper bushes are common garden shrubs that produce a bluish coloured berry. Many junipers are purely ornamental but some produce an edible berry that people make into gin or use for medicinal purposes. Juniper berries are only useful when they are properly ripened, so harvest them at the right time.
Know your juniper
Not all juniper berries are edible. In fact, some are poisonous. The common juniper, also known as the Juniperus Communis produces the most flavourful variety of berries, which flavours gin. These are the only junipers edible as fruit. Other varieties of juniper are not poisonous but are bitter-tasting. Herbalists harvest and dry these berries for medicinal use.
Juniper berries ripen on a three-year cycle. In the first year, the plant will form flowers that eventually produce berries. In the second year of the cycle, the berries form, but they will be hard and green in colour. In the third year, the berries develop a rich purplish blue colour, which signifies that they are ripe. The entire plant will not be in the same stage at the same time and will have a combination of all three stages of berry on it at any given time. When harvesting your berries, only remove the ripe berries.
Avoid harvesting juniper berries too early in the year. Pick your berries in the autumn before frost affects them. Aim to harvest your juniper berries in September or October, depending on where you live and when frost season begins.
How to pick
Once harvest time begins, wear gloves when picking your berries, as juniper bushes are covered with sharp needles. Alternately, you can use a berry picker or shake the bush until the berries fall off and land on a collecting sheet, but this method will remove the bitter green berries as well as the ripe blue berries.