Juniper (Juniperus spp.) bushes are popular shrubs that produce a bluish colored berry. With varieties hardy from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 10, many junipers are purely ornamental, but some produce berries that people use to flavor gin and other products. Juniper berries are only useful when they are properly ripened and come from the right juniper, so harvest them from the right plant at the right time.
Know Your Juniper
Not all juniper berries are edible. In fact, some are poisonous. The common juniper (Juniperus communis), hardy in USDA zones 2 through 6, is widely used for flavorings, including gin. These are the only juniper berries edible as fruit, and even they can be toxic if consumed in large quantities. Other varieties of juniper such as the California juniper (Juniperus californica), hardy in USDA zones 8 through 10, yield berries that are not poisonous but are bitter-tasting. Herbalists harvest and dry these berries for herbal uses.
Juniper berries ripen on a two- to three-year cycle. In the first year, the plant forms flowers that eventually produce berries. In the second year of the cycle, the berries often remain hard and green in color. By the third year, the berries develop a rich purplish blue color, which signifies that they are ripe. Fruit over the entire plant is always in different stages. Plants have a combination of all three stages of berry on them at any given time. When harvesting your berries, only remove the ripe berries.
To enjoy large harvests of juniper berries, make sure your juniper receives proper culture. Common junipers prefer full-sun locations where they receive a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sun each day. Your plant may tolerate light shade locations, but less sun results in fewer berries on your shrub. Junipers tolerate dry sites once established, but they prefer moist, yet well-drained soil. Consistent soil moisture helps promote good juniper nutrition and keeps berries plump and firm.
How to Pick the Berries
Avoid harvesting juniper berries too early in the year. Pick your berries in the fall before frost affects them. Once harvest time begins, wear gloves and protective clothing 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 tarp, but these methods remove the bitter green berries as well as the ripe blue berries. Try to remove only ripe berries so you'll have harvests in future years.