Category Archives: Wild Edibles

The Rowan Tree

by Roger Klinger

The American Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana), which may be better known as the “Rowan Tree,” is one of the more celebrated trees in history and folklore. These native trees are a childhood favorite of mine; we had two growing in our gardens, and my dad and I were always enchanted when autumn arrived and the trees’ berry clusters ignited with color, turning the most dazzling red hues. The Rowan tree is a native, high-altitude, small deciduous tree that thrives on the borders of ridges and forests, as it doesn’t tolerate competition from taller trees. These gorgeous trees love to inhabit rocky outcrops and crevices on wind-worn hillsides, and I only see them along the Blue Ridge Parkway at elevations above 3,500 feet. Two weeks ago, we went out for an annual fall picnic and leaf color tour on a Monday afternoon; driving up to Mt. Mitchell, we were greeted by hundreds of Rowan trees growing along the ridgelines from Craggy Gardens upward, in their full flaming red glory, providing a stunning foreground to the sweeping vistas of fall colors in the valleys and canyons down below. These craggy trees always make us smile with joy when the sun hits the berries and their color takes our breath away.

Birds love the berries and although they are considered edible, they can be quite bitter; like many “wild things,” one has to learn how to harvest and prepare them properly. I have to admit that for me, on the edibility scale, the Rowan tree’s berries and leaves rank towards the bottom in the realm of “fine dining from the wild“ but soar to the top in terms of their beauty, fantastic history, and magical legacy. “Rowan” comes from the Germanic word “raudnian” meaning “becoming red,” and it is hard to find any fruit in nature more red than a Rowan berry!

Our native species produce abundant berries that are quite bitter but loaded with vitamin C. Freezing helps reduce the bitter taste, and so does soaking the berries in vinegar and washing them off before use. There are European and Chinese species of Rowan trees and a number of cultivars on the market that have been bred to produce more flavorful berries without the bitterness associated with our native ones.

In Europe, Rowan berries were often made into a mildly bitter jelly, usually mixed with quince, which I once enjoyed in the Scotland Highlands paired with roasted pheasant. People have also made wine from the berries, and in Europe Rowan berries are often used to flavor liqueurs and cordials. Rowan berries are high in pectin and sorbic acid but also contain parasorbic acid, which causes indigestion when eaten raw, but heat and cooking neutralize these chemical agents.

For the Celts, the Rowan tree was called “aucuparia” which translates to “to catch a bird,” because the berries were used as a lure to hunt birds. Worldwide, Rowan berries are highly prized by birds, and here in the Blue Ridge, Cedar Waxwings adore these abundant fruits. In Sweden, the first day of winter was believed to happen when the last of the Rowan berries was consumed by birds. And in Finland, if Rowan trees had abundant berries, it was believed to be a predictor of a heavy snowfall that season.

The wood is dense and has been used for carving tool handles and walking sticks, and the bark yields a gray dye. On the medicinal front, gargling with the berries’ juice is widely used as a tonic for keeping vocal chords smooth and supple, counteracting dryness and irritation; many tales allude to singers’ performances saved by the Rowan berry.

Entire books have been written documenting the fascinating history and magical folklore of this tree. Harry Potter fans might remember how Rowan wands were exceptionally powerful talismans against evil and dark forces. Rowan trees were sacred to the Druids, whose high priests used the bark and berries to dye garments for lunar ceremonies. Throughout Europe, Rowan trees have had a long history of being talismans against evil enchantments and were often used as divining rods, particularly for metals. Strong taboos existed throughout the Scottish Highlands against the use of any parts of the tree other than the berries, as the wood could only be used for ceremonial purposes and was held as sacred.

Rowan was the clan badge for the Malcoms and McLachlans, and a Rowan tree was often planted near a gate or at the entrance of a home to offer protection and safety. The Rowan is also known as the Portal Tree, as it is considered the threshold between this world and otherworld. People often carried talismans of Rowan twigs in their pockets and the wood was also used to protect livestock.

One of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen was at the edge of a high-altitude ridgeline in winter after a beautiful light snowfall, with the fiery red berries on dozens of Rowan trees capped in white snow and panoramic vistas of our own sacred mountains in the backdrop.

May the holiday season fill your homes with joy, beauty and love, and as we prepare to cross the ancient threshold of the winter solstice, may we all celebrate the return of the Light.

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