Last Updated on November 8, 2022
Ever walk by a mountain ash tree and admire those beautiful drooping clusters of berries? If you’ve wondered to yourself, “Are mountain ash berries edible?” you’ll be happy to know they are — if you know what you’re doing. Read on to find out more about how to use mountain ash berries, one of the many beneficial ingredients you can gather from medicinal trees.
WHAT ARE MOUNTAIN ASH BERRIES?
Mountain ash berries, also commonly known as rowan berries, are the fruit of the mountain ash tree, Sorbus Americana, the showy mountain ash (Sorbus decora), or in Europe, Sorbus aucuparia. In the rose family, mountain ash isn’t actually an ash at all, which is the genus Fraxinus, though the leaves are somewhat similar.
Other names include service tree, quickbeam, and dogberry. European folklore ascribed magical powers to the rowan tree, leading to its moniker “witch tree.” You’ll find artisans using rowanberries in handcrafted protective charms like these.
If you’re considering planting a mountain ash tree, you don’t need to be concerned about the emerald ash borer. Because the mountain ash isn’t actually in the same genus as ash, mountain ash trees should not be susceptible to these destructive insects.
Rowan berries have long been used as food and medicine and contain many valuable compounds, described in the benefits section below.
ARE ROWAN BERRIES / MOUNTAIN ASH BERRIES EDIBLE?
Mountain ash berries are indeed edible, though you wouldn’t want to munch them fresh off the tree in late summer. Like black chokeberries, mountain ash berries are exceedingly astringent, and not in the least tasty eaten on their own. Use chokeberries in one of these aronia berry recipes instead.
Rowan berries are best picked after a frost (or better yet, several) has mellowed their flavor, or you can try to mimic a frost by putting them in your freezer if you’re worried about the birds collecting them before you do.
If you have a choice, though, leave mountain ash berries on the tree for several hard frosts for the best flavor.
–> So if you’re reading this before the weather’s turned cold, be sure to bookmark it and come back. This page gets a lot of visitors waaaaaaay before these little orange berries are ready!
Most people cook mountain ash berries before using, both to improve flavor and to deactivate compounds that can make you sick. Rowanberry is decidedly not a fresh-eating fruit, but makes tasty jellies and sauces.
The seeds of mountain ash berries contain a cyanogenic glycoside called prunasin, which can release a potentially deadly cyanide compound. European elderberries contain a similar compound, which is why they’re always heated before consuming.
If you want to be extra cautious, stick with recipes that strain out the seeds, though you will find plenty that leave them in after cooking.
The flowers and leaves of European mountain ash trees are sometimes used for tea. I’ve found no information suggesting that the American mountain ash can be used in the same way, so please share if you know something about this.
ARE MOUNTAIN ASH BERRIES / ROWAN BERRIES GOOD FOR YOU?
High in vitamin C, carotenoids (pigments that give them their orange-red color), and other phytochemicals, rowan berries are being studied as sources of these valuable plant compounds. Historically, their vitamin C content made them a remedy for scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.
Some of the compounds that make rowan berries less tasty are considered toxic in large quantities. This overview reports that the parasorbic acid present in rowanberry before the frost converts to nontoxic sorbic acid after frost. Both freezing and heat treatment also transform these compounds.
Several Native American tribes used mountain ash berries and bark for food and medicine. The Algonquin used the inner bark and the Potawatomi used the leaves as a cold remedy. The Iroquois used the fruit and the Bella Coola used a bark decoction as a digestive aid, among many other uses for the mountain ash.
Mountain ash berries are anti-inflammatory and may promote heart health and help regulate blood sugar. A traditional diabetes remedy, the species Sorbus aria is being studied for managing type 2 diabetes.
People also use mountain ash for kidney issues, arthritis, digestive problems, and inflammation in the mouth, though there isn’t yet research to back its effectiveness for these uses. Maude Grieve notes mountain ash’s use as a soothing gargle for sore throats.
FORAGING MOUNTAIN ASH BERRIES / ROWAN BERRIES
Because they hang on through the winter, mountain ash berries are a good foraging option when many other of our favorite plants have died or gone to sleep for the season. Cedar waxwings are fond of rowanberry, though, so you may find they’ve beaten you to them. Rowan berries may also degrade on the tree, as you can see in the photo below.
Mountain ash trees grow in tree form or as multi-stemmed shrubs, more often seen growing wild. In urban and suburban settings, you’re more likely to find mountain ash in tree form.
Mountain ash trees can grow up to 40 feet high, but you’ll find many smaller trees that will be easier to harvest from.
ROWAN BERRY / MOUNTAIN ASH BERRY IDENTIFICATION
ROWAN BERRY FRUIT
The primary way you’ll spot mountain ash trees is their edible fruits, which appear in showy red or orange clusters at the end of the summer. The ones growing near me tend to be more orange earlier in the season, turning redder and getting harder to see as fall progresses. The color of rowan berries may vary by region and species.
Resembling berries, rowanberries are actually pomes, which are fleshy fruit with a core containing seeds, like an apple.
ROWAN BERRY LEAVES
Leaves are compound pinnate, with narrow serrated leaflets arranged in an opposite pattern, usually 11-17 per leaf. Leaves grow in an alternating pattern from branches.
ROWAN BERRY FLOWERS
White flowers appear in clusters on the mountain ash tree in early summer, around the same time as elderflowers. Each flower has 5 petals and numerous prominent stamens.
ROWAN BERRY BARK
Bark is typically grey and smooth, but older trunks may develop a scaly surface. You can see the scales developing on this mature tree.
It can be tricky to distinguish American mountain ash tree from the showy mountain ash and European mountain ash, but you don’t really need to, since they’re used in the same ways. Showy mountain ash typically has larger berries than the other two. The leaves of the European mountain ash have hairy rather than smooth leaves and leaf stalks, and leaves tend to be smaller and less tapered at the ends.
MOUNTAIN ASH LOOK ALIKES
Not many plants could be confused with mountain ash. Perhaps if you really weren’t paying attention to leaf shape, you might mistake a rowan tree from a crab apple, but no worries, as those are edible, and in many cases far better-tasting. Here are some uses for crab apples if you’re curious.
Another is highbush cranberry, an edible viburnum with similarly astringent fruit. Not really a problem if you mistakenly harvest them instead of rowanberries, but they’re easy to tell apart. You can see in the photo below how different the leaf shapes are, as are the berries.
Consider taking a class like the Herbal Academy’s online foraging course to gain confidence foraging a wide variety of edible wild plants and master plant identification and wildcrafting practices.
TIPS FOR USING ROWAN BERRIES & ROWAN BERRY RECIPES
Now that you’ve gathered up a huge bunch of mountain ash berries, what to do with them? Remember, rowan berries are not considered a good choice for fresh eating, and cooking is recommended to diminish the compounds of concern.
If you picked them after several nights of frost, they’ll likely have mellowed a bit, but either way, they’ll probably improve after a few days or weeks in the freezer. Plan to harvest and store them frozen awhile before using for best results.
Because they’re so bitter, truly astonishing amounts of sugar are often used in rowan jelly recipes. We’re all about healthy around here, and limiting your sugar intake is really important if you seek optimal health. (Here’s how much sugar per day is OK.)
To lessen the amount of sugar needed to enjoy your rowan berries, try mixing them with other fruits, like fall apples, abundant at the same time. The flavor of jams and jellies will also likely improve with some time on the shelf before eating.
Some ways to preserve and use your foraged rowan berries:
- Infuse vinegar with mountain ash berries for an unusual fruity vinegar. When you strain the berries, use them as an accompaniment for heavier dishes.
- Steep some in alcohol for a homemade liqueur. In Poland a vodka infused with rowan berries is popular.
- Take advantage of rowan berry’s high pectin content and make a traditional rowan jam
- Make a foraged homemade chutney like this one from Emi’s Good Eating.
- Cook some into a flavorful syrup, which can be used in cocktails or other recipes.
- If you like to make wine, rowan berries can be used in winemaking. Apparently a well-known Welsh ale called diod griafol also used rowan berries.
- Try this turkish delight recipe using juiced rowan berries.
- Dehydrate some for future use.
- Put some in your freezer to mellow further.
–> Looking for slightly more delicious foraged foods you can enjoy with less effort? There are tons! Some of my favorites include:
- Wild Black Raspberries
- Pine Needles
- Edible Hackberry Fruit
- Mulberry Leaf
Ever foraged mountain ash berries? How did you use them?
Pin to save this info on mountain ash berries for later!
Additional mountain ash berries photo credits in cover & pins: John Semeniuk, OllgaP
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.