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Juniperus communis, common juniper
The colloquial name for gin, 'Mother's Ruin' is based on the juniper's ability to cause miscarriage.
Read more about Juniperus communis, common juniper, in these blog
entries (most recent first);
Plants that may be especially harmful during pregnancy and childbirth
Poisonous plants in a public park.
Cupressaceae though sometimes wrongly given as Pinaceae
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Meaning of the Name
Most of the available definitions are circular ‘Juniperus’ means ‘juniper’. There is no indication of Juniperus being derived from Juno, Jupiter’s sister and wife, but the derivation of ‘Juno’ can be traced to a root meaning ‘vital force’ so it may be that ‘Juniperus’ derives from the evergreen properties of plants in the genus.
Not just ‘common’ but may also mean ‘grows in company with other plants’.
Common Names and Synonyms
common juniper, hackmatack, horse savin, gorst, aiten. The names dwarf juniper, mountain common juniper, old field common juniper, prostrate juniper, fairy circle are usually applied to low growing varieties.
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
Volatile oils, particularly alpha-pinene, myrcene and sabinene which are monoterpenes can be extracted from the plant. It is capable of causing gastrointestinal upset though there is disagreement about how serious this could be. It has also been shown to contain high levels of isocupressic acid which is known to be an abortificant.
In 1998 a trial, on two pregnant cattle resulted in both aborting. It is believed to have been used for this purpose in humans in the past. Hence, gin, which is flavoured with juniper is 'Mother's Ruin'.
The 16th century herbalist, John Gerard, said a large dose will lead to gripings and gnawings in the stomach but without causing either constipation or diarrhoea.
In American Medicinal Plants, Charles F. Millspaugh says a Dr C. A. Lee reported the case of a woman who drank an ounce of the essential oil, hoping to procure an abortion. She suffered fever, vomiting, pain in the bowels, uterine haemorrhage followed by violent purging and stupor preceding death.
Folklore and Facts
The wood was burned in the fire on New Year’s Day in the Scottish Highlands to purify the house and its occupants and also burnt before summer and close to a sick person to drive out the malady.
This use to drive out disease, probably, originates in the Middle Ages. In the mid-14th century, John of Burgundy, also known as Sir John Mandeville, wrote a 'pest-tract' in which he describes the treatment for plague. Plague was believed to result from the victim absorbing 'corrupt vapours' and was, also, thought to have a strong astrological connection. Treatment involved avoiding exposure to the vapours by preventing bathing or any other action which would open the pores and confining the patient to a closed room in which juniper branches had been burnt in order to cleanse the air.
Juniper and rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, are associated in folklore. It should not be grown close to or brought into the house with rowan as the two combine to generate enough heat to cause combustion. In Iceland, however, you must use both woods or neither when building a boat. Using only one will make the boat sink.
It is a good example of some of the problems which can arise when trying to apply ancient writings to today's knowledge. What Dioscorides calls Arkeothos mikra, Goodyer, the 1655 translator, thinks is J. communis. About this plant Dioscorides says it is good for the stomach and for ‘strangled wombs’ but the scraping or dust of the wood, swallowed, kills. Goodyer, however, also thinks Kedros mikra is J. communis. This plant has the power to corrupt living bodies but preserve dead ones. It clears the sight, kills worms in the ears and, cures tinnitus. Applied to the genitals before coition it produces sterility. Tess Anne Osbaldeston, in her translation, published in 2000, suggests Cedar of Lebanon for Kedros mikra.