Juniper Berries are spicy, sweet, with a piney aroma. They are delicious in stews and soups and with meats (especially wild game). They also give gin its distinctive flavor and are a common flavor ingredient in bitters.
Juniper berries are actually the cones from a small evergreen shrub belonging to the cypress (Cupressaceae) family. Its bluish-green needles hint at the coloring of the berries. Perhaps the most widely found tree in the world, there are 50 to 67 species of juniper. The botanical name Juniperus communis comes from the Latin "communis" for "common." Its berries--round and blue-violet-- take two to three years to ripen to their distinctive blue color, which is why you'll find berries of different colors on the same shrub. They're harvested when deep blue and become blacker during the drying process.
In many countries, juniper is associated with Christmas and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Legend tells how Mary and Joseph were almost caught when fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus. A small juniper tree spread its branches and Mary was able to hide Jesus under the branches. The soldiers saw only a young woman walking with an old man, and they safely escaped. Throughout history, juniper berries were often burned to keep evil spirits away and to cleanse the air--in ancient temples and ceremonial rooms, and during the Black Plague, for example. The plant was also often hung over doorways to drive off snakes as well as witches. Native American Indians used it to brew tonics to treat everything from colds to arthritis, kidney trouble, stomachaches and rheumatism. They also used it in religious ceremonies.