Living Mountain: Nan Shepherd on juniper

Living Mountain: Nan Shepherd on juniper

Image: Sebastien Noel

In The Living Mountain Nan Shepherd writes:

‘…juniper is secretive with its scent. it has an odd habit of dying in patches, and when a dead branch is snapped, a spicy odour comes from it. I have carried a piece of juniper wood for months, breaking it afresh now and then to renew the spice’.

Juniper is what defines gin. Juniper berries – which take two years to mature slowly on the plant – give gin its very distinctive flavour.

‘The aroma and taste of juniper is – or at least should be – the signature note in any gin, both on the nose and on the palate’, according to the Gin Foundry. Even the name ‘gin’ is derived from the French ‘genievre’, meaning ‘juniper’.

But it’s more than that. Juniper is so vital a part of the spirit that, by law, it needs to be the predominant flavour in anything classified as gin.

Of course it’s not just for gin that juniper is important. The shrub supports a range of wildlife. But until recently juniper was in decline in Britain, particularly in England.

Plants have been struggling to regenerate, producing fewer seeds, and younger plants are being eaten by deer and rabbits. Phytophthora austrocedri, a fungus discovered in British juniper in 2011,  hasn’t helped. It causes foliage to die back and eventually kills off the plants.

But thanks to the efforts of the National Seed Project, the future of British gin may now be safe. Seeds from 30 different species of juniper were collected from 3,000 trees at sites including Devon, Cambridgeshire, Shropshire, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland and banked in the Millennium Seed Bank.

And, according to Richard Deverell, Director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, our native juniper species has been conserved.

But you can still do your bit for the juniper and plant a tree.

Living Mountain Nan Shepherd on plants

It’s the bark, not the berries, Nan Shepherd’s talking about in her chapter of The Living Mountain on Plants.

Scent, she says, is ‘pertinent to the theme of life’ because it is ‘largely a by-product of the process of living’. ‘It may also be a by-product of fire’. ‘In the wettest season, when every fir branch in the woods is sodden, the juniper is crackling dry and burns with a clear heat’.

If you burn juniper wood there is little smoke but what there is, is intensely aromatic. It was used in ancient times for the ritual purification of temples, the smoke said to aid clairvoyance.

Nan Shepherd was a seer. She was also as reticent about herself as juniper is with its scent. How apt, then, that having discovered the way to release its spicy aroma, she carried a piece of it around in her pocket.

For more on the extremely private Nan Shepherd, read Into the Mountain

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