Mountain Ash, also called Rowan, Sorbus sp., is a common tree found all over Europe and North America that has bright red and orange berry clusters ripe for the picking at this very moment. From a distance you might think it’s hawthorn, to whom it is in fact related — botanists place both in the rose family and the apple sub-family — but up close you’ll see the Mountain Ash leaves are very different. They’re pinnately compound, like walnut or sumac. The berries are high in Vitamin C. The leaves have cyanide in them, so don’t eat those. There is an ethnobotanical record of the leaves being used medicinally as a tea for pneumonia, that said.For a couple months I had seen this tree all over northeast Portland and suspected it was edible, but I didn’t know what it was. Then, just a few days ago, I recognized it in a photo in a recent post on the Berlin Plants blog. I immediately went out and tasted a berry. They’re soft and juicy but extremely sour. Apparently they sweeten significantly once a frost has come. If you live in a place where it hasn’t, you can cheat by sticking them in your freezer for a couple of days. That’s what I’m doing right now.
Many people enjoy Mountain Ash berry jam, especially with apples mixed in. This recipe by a blogger in Sweden looks particularly appealing, and this other one looks nice and simple, too. With those in mind, I went out yesterday afternoon to harvest the berries and, naturally, a wicked downpour struck right as I got to the tree. It’s the beginning of the rainy season here. While it sprinkles and drizzles all year round in the Pacific Northwest, except for summer, the rain comes down in flash floods in the autumn and spring. I got soaked, but it only enhanced the adventure. My dog did not really see it the same way. Poor Petunia got drenched. She was wearing a rain coat and yet she had that head-hung-low posture with the “What have you gotten me into?” wet-dog grimace. But then it cleared and we saw a rainbow.
By the way, birds (and bears) like to eat Sorbus berries, but you don’t need to worry much about leaving enough for the winged ones because the trees grow very tall and leave only a few low-hanging branches suitable for the average human to access. The branches are nice and flexible.
In addition to the jam, I’m also going to make a Mountain Ash liqueur by filling a glass mason jar 1/3 full with the berries and then adding in maple syrup and brandy, and maybe also some chopped up apples. I’m going to improvise and make up my own recipe. I’ll shake the jar every few days and after a month I’ll strain it into another bottle. My plan is to enjoy it in hot cider. I’m also thinking about putting the liqueur inside chocolates as holiday gifts.
Another fun thing you could do: Make Sorbus ginger chutney with this recipe (scroll down). You would be the coolest kid in town with that one.
Rowan is important in the Celtic tradition and in some lore is associated with dragons. Here’s more info from the Complete Pagan Herbal here.
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