Mountain ash's magic steeped in mythology

Jeff Lowenfels
In the Middle Ages, sprigs of mountain ash berries were hung over barn doors to ward off evil.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

I've seen enough mountain ash berries this month to know that we are going to have quite a few drunken bohemian waxwings later this winter. Those beautiful, red berries, bountiful this year, happen to be their favorite food. But they ferment during the winter and the last ones eaten must be doozies. More than one waxwing has awakened with a terrible hangover, I am quite sure.

We call our Sorbus trees "mountain ashes" and they are familiar to all who live in southcentral Alaska because of their red berries and their attraction of flocks of waxwings who systematically strip each berry off each tree, one by one. You can see why these trees used to be planted to attract song birds so they could be trapped and eaten, blackbird pie and all that.

Mountain ashes are all over Anchorage, decorating streets in Spenard and punctuating yards throughout. The Europeans, however, call them "rowans" a name derived from Norse and having something to do with red, for obvious reasons. Rowans! Why didn't I ever put two and two together?

All of a sudden, seeing these common trees with clusters of red berries takes on new meaning because these are the "magic trees" of yore. Didn't Macbeth protect himself with arrows made from rowan wood, or was he hiding in Rowan Woods and it was Merlin who had the rowan wood arrows? Or was it his wand? Druids used mountain ash wood for religious staffs, and it was considered a guard against lightning on land and at sea. All sorts of magical properties were attributed to these trees and their wood.

Eaten raw, rowan berries contain a form of sorbic acid (actually named after the plant Sorbus), that can make you sick to your stomach and do damage to the kidneys. They are really bitter, so you probably aren't going to have problems. Once cooked, however, the acid becomes safe, unless you happen to make liquor out of it and drink too much.

In fact, all manner of alcoholic spirits can be concocted using Rowan berries from cordials and wines to beers. Austrian rowan schnapps is pretty famous in schnapps-drinking circles, I am told, and rowan beer has a following in Germany.

Maybe the bitter taste of rowan berries is why all the recipes for rowan jelly I can find pretty much call for the addition of a goodly portion apples or other fruits, not to mention lots of sugar. And, you have to make sure to pick the berries in time, before they get too squishy. Last time I checked, there was still time to harvest locally.

Another popular use of rowans, in Europe anyhow, is mixing it with other "hedgerow" fruits like raspberries, blackberries, crab apples and rosehips. These can be made into a compote or jelly or jam.

I even found one recipe for using these berries as a substitute for coffee beans. You might want to try roasting rowan berries, but I am not advising it. However, it is something to keep in mind in case we are stranded here without a place to buy coffee some day. Perish the thought.

Of course, there are other things you can do with the berries. They are very decorative and fit into the winter holiday decoration scheme. In fact, I am guessing the holly berries in winter wreaths and other Christmas decorations are really substitutes for rowan berries. In the Middle Ages, sprigs of rowan berries were hung over barn doors to ward off evil and their placement in a solstice wreath, I am quite sure, was full of symbolism lost on us today.

A rowan or two -- "mountain ash" now sounds so pedestrian -- might be in order for your yard. Think of all the things you can do with one and how happy the waxwings will be to have one more treat tree to attack. The Druids were right. They are magical, these rowans.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at or by calling 274-5297 during "The Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.