Vasha Brunelle wants to spice up her new year naturally. She recently inquired as to the edibility of Eastern red cedar berries. Yes, they are considered edible, but as with everything, be sure to use in moderation since large amounts can be toxic. And even more importantly, be sure to identify your tree properly as the berries of some juniper species can be poisonous.

Eastern red cedar is a familiar Island tree. It is an evergreen that is not a true cedar, but hails from the genus Juniperus. The Island’s only wild juniper is Juniperus virginiana, which sports berries well loved by birds, especially the cedar waxwing.

It is these berries that are the fruit of Vasha’s eye and the special seasoning in her sauerkraut. Native Americans used them for both food and medicinal purposes, in a variety of recipes and for a multitude of ills.

Gather only the blue berries, as the green ones are not yet ripe. To be ready, a berry needs three years to mature. These berries are not really berries, but are the cones of the tree. They can be prepared by drying, soaking, mashing, and even used raw. Tea can be made, but more often the berries have been added to meat and game, stuffing, marinades, and stews, in addition to sauerkraut and other pickles.

Remember the advice to use sparingly. Large amounts of the berries can cause irritation of the kidneys. Especially avoid oil extracts, which should be used for scent, but not food as its ingestion can cause acute toxicity, vomiting, and convulsions. Pregnant women should avoid the berries completely to be on the safe side. There are, as noted, health benefits from juniper berries. Tea was brewed and drunk to treat coughs and colds, and expel intestinal worms, and chewing the berries was believed to soothe mouth sores. Some tribes also recommended external applications for warts and other skin infections.

Though one can consume the berries of eastern red cedar, it is its cousin common juniper, Juniperus communis that has achieved much greater culinary fame. This is the juniper known for its contribution to the spirit world. Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius invented the first gin-like concoction, which gets its flavor from the common juniper, for use as a diuretic medicine in the early 1700s.

However this “medicine” quickly achieved infamy and popularity. In 1738, British poet Alexander Pope portrayed the drink as, “A spiritous liquor, the exorbitant use of which had almost destroyed the lowest rank of the People till it was restrained by an act of Parliament.” The Gin Acts were passed in the 1730s and 1740s, causing rioting among the many users of this so-called remedy.

It is hard not to have a crush on Juniper berries; but remember the advice not to get too sauced.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.