The Great New Zealand Juniper Hunt is calling on Kiwi gin lovers to try and track down the elusive plant to assist New Zealand's booming local artisan gin industry.
Distillers Juno Gin (Taranaki) and Reefton Distilling have collaborated with researchers at Massey University to put a call out for all New Zealanders to check their backyards and local parks for thriving juniper plants.
Founders of Juno Gin, Jo and Dave James spoke to The Country Early Edition's Rowena Duncum about the initiative, and the importance of sourcing local juniper.
Although juniper is referred to as a berry, it is actually the cone of the tree.
"Junipers are actually a coniferous tree, or a conifer," said Jo, who explained it is most important ingredient in the gin-making process.
"For gin to be gin, at least 50 per cent of any botanical material used to make the gin, or to flavour the gin, has to be juniper – otherwise it's just not gin."
Juno had to source its juniper cones from the Northern Hemisphere, which meant the origins of the product were often unclear said Dave.
"We have to buy through spice houses, so we're not sure where they come from."
Juno's juniper was harvested from the wild, in places such as Albania and Macedonia, where there were no commercial production facilities said Dave.
Another challenge for the company was that juniper is an endangered species in some countries, due to climate change, political unrest and urbanisation encroaching on its natural habitat said Dave.
"In the UK they're actually now an endangered species so they're having planting programmes."
Juniper may prove elusive in New Zealand as it was never grown commercially, said Jo.
"They were very popular as an ornamental or interest species, in the 1950 and 60s and through to the 70s, and we know that juniper trees live for well over 100 years ... so we should see in New Zealand, some beautiful, 30, 40, 50, 60 year old specimens of trees."
Another reason for juniper being scarce is the fact that it is dioecious, which means it needs a male and a female plant to produce berries.
"When people were planting an individual specimen tree, quite often they would find that they might start to have a berry but that the berry would drop off, or they wouldn't have berries at all because they were boy trees," said Jo.
So far the juniper match-making service has been successful, as the couple have found a girl tree in Nelson and a boy tree in Egmont Village.
"We know that they're scattered around, and they're lonely, they're pining," said Jo, who immediately apologised for the pun.
Duncum suggested the search is like a Tinder service for juniper.
"I just don't know if Tinder is the right word, given we're talking about trees," joked Dave.
Ultimately the goal was to create the first commercial production of juniper berries in the world, and sourcing the tree in New Zealand would mean being able to easily trace the location and quality of the cones.
So far harvesting juniper in New Zealand has been interesting, as the plant has displayed some surprising traits, which Dave compared to growing grapes.
"If you grow them in certain soils or certain gravels they give you a different flavour, even if it's the same variety ... If we grow them in different places around Taranaki, we get a different flavour profile."
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this discovery is the potential to create a New Zealand-centric gin to export to the global market said Dave.
How can Kiwis help?
Although juniper can vary in size, from a flat shrub to a small tree, the following tips can be used for spotting the plant:
• Needle-like leaves with sharp tips (up to 25mm long).
• Leaves are not decurrent (i.e. do not extend downward on the stem).
• Leaves have one wide white band (it should be wider than the green borders that surround the white portion).
• Fleshy berries 5-6mm wide with several seeds (blue/black when ripe).
• The actual size and shape of the shrub/tree varies.
For more information, visit junogin.co.nz/juniper-hunt.