Things To Do With Mountain Ash

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.

Click to enlarge

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.

I was very excited to come across 11 apples on the ground very close to the tree. Nature was like, “Hey, I know your plans, here’s all the ingredients for free.”

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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  1. im looking for what kind of tree i have in my front yard, i traced it down to a mountain ash. my tree has always had green-yellow berries, im not to sure if it is a dumb question but i just want to know what exactly it is lol

    • I just looked up info on the tree I’ve lived with for twenty some years, mostly from curiosity if the berries really make birds drunk as I’ve heard. One hit glass patio door this morn but I read berries don’t ferment until a frost which hasn’t happened, but I’ve partially closed the blinds just in case. I hope some berries are left for first frost so I can observe if birds seem to become inebriated.

  2. My wonderful grandmother (born in 1901) always chewed on a bouquet of mountain ash berries in the fall. She passed away in the ‘late ’70s. I still miss her and when I see the brilliant red berries of the rowan, I always think of her and shed a happy tear that she was my Nana.

  3. hey i don’t suppose you if the pink pagoda variety is safe to eat? Sorbus hupehensis – I assume so, but I can’t actually find any info…

  4. Does anyone use mountain ash berries in pie? Some sites suggest harmful effects when used in large quantities and when combined with water. I plan on combining them with apples and blackberries in a pie-esque dish and I need to know if I ought to hold back from large servings and reccomend others do the same.

  5. Thanks for this great blog! I, too, am trying to start a blog about urban foraging. I come from a farming community in the Pacific Northwest (Whidbey Island, Washington) and currently live on the outskirts of Seattle. I was curious to know if you have any idea whether Mountain Ash has been used in wine making? I’m an amateaur wine maker and experimenting with different berries for brewing. I’m assuming with the tannins in the Mountain Ash that it would be too tart, but perhaps like with the jellies, if I added it to a hard cider recipe this fall it could work. Any insights?

  6. If you want to make jam with rowan it is good practice to dry them first. Decorate your roof with hanging bunches of beautiful berries and when dry, soak and blend them or cook for the jam or chew as they are. In case your climate won’t allow to wait for frosts, one way to go is to soak them for 2 days in 3% brine. That will also force moths to come out. However, frost bitten from the tree are the best. Rowans are sacred, providing food during the winter in far north…

  7. If you want to make jam drying them first is good idea. Decorate your roof with the bunches and after drying, soak and blend or cook your jam. Unless you can wait for frost one way to go is to soak them for two days in 3 % brine. That will also force worms come out.

  8. Planted a Mountain Ash in our back yard because it is a beautiful tree. Had no idea the berries were edible. Trouble with the tree is the berries are scattered all over the yard. The birds are very messy eaters. Will have to pick the berries from now on and try to make jam or jelly. The birds will have to find another source of Vitamin C !

  9. GREAT POST. I live in NY and have been looking for ash trees – but I can’t seem to find them where I live. I did find out that the town planted Hawthorn trees down the main ave. I would love some ash branches, want to trade?

    • The Mountain Ash isn’t a true Ash, despite the name. You may not be able to find true Ash for some time, as those trees are being decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer. Many communities (including my own) are culling all the Ash and replacing them with multiple species. Mountain Ash should be available at any good tree center. Best wishes.

  10. Great post Rebecca,
    I have been looking around to find Mountain ash and could’nt find any. I am under the impression we don’t have any here in Quebec. I will keep on looking and keep you posted…
    Thanks again for the reat info.

  11. agreed. as always great post. here in the mount shasta volcano bioregion, in the once and future isles of califia, sorbus-rowan-mtn-ash show up planted along public right-of-ways and parking lots, where every year the berries are smushed into pudding by vehicular and pedestrian traffic. have never seen a living creature eat a single berry. but have crushed-smelled-and-taste-tested them. found them to be snow-berry-crab-apple-like. have always wondered who these trees were. you are the third person serendipitously in the past week to put a name on their face. i am a compulsive-dry-everything-in-sight-for-later-consumption-forager. i am the lazy-no-tech-type who sun dries fruits and roots and shade-air dries greens. thanks becky for the timely post. finally well informed by one-n-all, this season i will gather the berries at their peak by the-organic-banana-box-full, dry them, and report back. much love

  12. Love this post! It’s so informative and exciting to read of your new discovery of Sorbus. I really appreciate the links you add to recipes and cultural information.

    And….I saw the rainbows, too!

  13. unfortunately i dont think the sticking berries in the freezer will work well unless they are sticcle connected to quite a long branch, i know that with the related blackthorn it does not.
    the reason they are tart is the tannins, and the reason a frost sweetens them is that the tannins are drawn back into the tree to protect from the frost…
    in a freezer there in nowhere for the tannins to go.

    • Drat. Well, hmm, if they have to be protected from the frost, does that mean the cold temperature would destroy the tannins? That would seem to suggest the freezer method might work. We need a plant scientist to weigh in.

  14. riot flower has a lovely picture. whatever…. thank you becky for this lovely post in swedish and norwegian i knew the name. hat is it again. its very common and i now rolf in norwegain has a side on this.. sadly i forget… its a little distance to the inner love. i miiss a lot. actually i wish some groupies would mail me cause. some how all the struggle i do. i wish someone cry for me some tears. this would be natural relief.

    maybe the sky does…. this is honestly beauty becky. hope you stay clean by all this fertilizers and sprays out there. …

    i collected wild herbs today at the organic farm nearby. this was good.

    somehow all is unconnected we all are unconnected in our inner search we find love one day througheverything what we promote we realy can deeply enjoy our life if we let go the ones who need to breath take care. there are places.. any way there was a woman from uk she make interviews from people like you and me. ill mail you if youre interested. keep lovely.
    stay pure.

  15. Thanks for the genius idea of sticking them in the freezer to imitate frost! I’ve always wanted to harvest rosehips and, while we got snow last year, the frost is sometimes so late that it never arrives…meaning that the fruits go to waste. Thanks for the discussion of rowan berries as well!