A few weeks ago we traveled to northeastern Vermont to visit family. This was an incredibly relaxing vacation for us. And I had the opportunity to finally try a fruit that I had only previously read about… berries from the American Mountain-Ash (Sorbus americana). This small tree is related to the European Mountain-Ash, and these trees are also commonly known as Rowan. I’ve written more about this genus in a previous article.

We happened to be in Vermont in the middle of September, and this appeared to be the peak time for Mountain-Ash berries this year. As we drove the small country roads and boated on the lake, I could see the clumps of bright red, almost glowing, berries growing on these small trees. I grabbed a bucket and some kitchen shears before we got on the boat one morning, and we found an overhanging tree covered in fruit.

Note that Mountain-Ash berries are not eaten fresh. They are very bitter and high in tanin, and they honestly do not taste very good. But birds love them fresh, and they serve as a great cold-season food for birds as the berries hang on the tree long into the Winter. I have found some reports that the fresh berries contain a substance (parasorbic acid) that is potentially nephrotoxic (toxic to the kidneys); however, this substance quickly breaks down into a harmless substance (sorbic acid) when the fruit is cooked or dried. The fruit was used by natives of North America as a medicine and food. Meat was dried and ground into a powder along with the dried berries and often mixed with other ingredients for a Winter or travelling food source that was high in protein and Vitamin C.

Excited to find some Mountain-Ash!

We had to harvest from the boat. The kids were excited to help… but quickly lost interest when they noticed the fish!

Mountain-Ash berries grow in large clumps which make harvesting pretty easy. I just clipped the clumps with some kitchen shears and tossed them into a bucket.

In about ten to fifteen minutes, we had a five-gallon bucket almost two-thirds full of loosely packed clumps of berries. Harvesting was significantly easier than cleaning. But cleaning was easy if not tedious. I spent a few hours sitting on the back deck pulling the stems off berries, tossing bad berries, and flicking off the variety of insects that make their home on the American Mountain-Ash. This was relaxing work, and my oldest son enjoyed helping out… volunteered on his own to help, even when I took some breaks!

My oldest son volunteered to help me sort and clean the berries.

Not a bad haul for 10-15 minutes of harvesting!

Mountain-Ash Berries!

There may be an easier way to really clean the berries, and I’ll share it if I find it. The berries had a lot of dust and debris on them even after the initial cleaning. I washed them all in the sink, draining them in a colander. I then took one cup at a time and tossed them in a bowl of clean water. Many of the bad berries and leaves and dried flowers floated to the top and could be easily picked out. This final cleaning took about another hour. I then spread all the berries in a thin layer on some kitchen towels on the counter to dry. The next morning, I packed all the berries into quart ziplock bags and ended up with about a gallon of berries. I packed these bags into my carry-on bag for the flight back home to East Tennessee. The TSA employees were just a little curious about what were in the the little ziplock bags!

We ended up with 4 quarts of berries.

Back in Tennessee, I decided to experiment with the berries in a variety of ways: mead, cordial, jam, and tincture. I’ll briefly describe the purpose and methods I used for each.

American Mountain-Ash Mead: Mead is a fermented honey drink also known as honey wine. When mixed with fruit, a mead is technically called a melomel. I used 3 pounds of a local honey (1 quart) for this 1-gallon batch of mead. This will give a nice medium-bodied mead. Less honey will be lighter and less sweet. More honey will be heavier, thicker, and more sweet. The Mountain-Ash berries are very high in tannin, and this adds a dryness to the wine, similar to a dry red wine such as a cabernet sauvignon. The fruit will also give additional and unique flavor to the mead. I boiled a half-gallon of water then stirred in the honey until it was all dissolved. I put the clean berries into a previously sterilized, 1-gallon glass jug, and I poured in the almost boiling honey water. I then filled the jug the rest of the way with just boiled water. I capped the jug with a rubber stopper (as seen in the photo below) and let the jug rest until the water cooled to about room temperature. I then pitched (poured in) the dried brewer’s yeast that I had in my garage. Ideally, I would have used a champagne yeast, but I didn’t have it on hand. I replaced the rubber stopper with a plastic airlock that allows the fermenting mead to release gas without allowing outside air, and contaminants, into the mead. The mead is bubbling away as I write this, and it will probably will do so for a few weeks before I transfer it to another jug to age.

Mountain-Ash Syrup: A syrup is basically any concentrated liquid (tea, juice, etc.) that is sweetened with sugar, honey, or any other sweetener. The purpose of a syrup can be for flavoring or medicinal. Often used as a way to make herbal teas or decoctions more palatable. There are number of medicinal uses for Mountain-Ash berries. Because they have a high Vitamin C content, they were traditionally used to prevent scurvy, especially considering that the berries stay on the tree long into the Winter. Mountain-Ash berries are very astringent (drying… due in large part to their high tannin content), and were also used for anything that involved swelling or irritation (upper respiratory infections and sore throats, diarrhea, boils, etc.). Additionally, it was commonly used as a “digestive” to aid or stimulate digestion. From a medical perspective, I believe that this probably helps increase gastrointestinal motility, but I have no evidence for this yet. However, because Mountain-Ash berries have also been used as a mild laxative, I believe this makes sense, at least theoretically. This syrup was pretty easy to make. I added about 1/2 cup of water to a quart of berries and simmered them until the berries were very soft, about 20-30 minutes. I used a potato masher and smashed all the berries. I poured this mashed fruit into a fine colander and let the juice drip out. I could have left it drain overnight in the refrigerator for a very clear juice, but I didn’t want to wait so I pressed the mashed fruit to quickly express as much juice as possible. This resulted in a cloudy juice. I heated this in a small, clean saucepan, and I added honey to this to make it quite sweet, but not overly so. I store this in the refrigerator, so I am not too concerned about spoilage. I will likely use this syrup as a flavored sweetener to a hot cup of tea this coming Winter. It has a very bitter flavor, but there is a nice, aromatic fruity flavor behind it. I enjoy a nice bitter drinks like a strong IPA beer or coffee, bitter greens like endive and radicchio, and semi-sweet foods like grapefruit and dark chocolate, so the bitterness in Mountain-Ash is rather nice, if not rather strong.

Mountain-Ash & Apple Jam: I have read that Mountain-Ash/Rowan berries pair well with sweet and tart fruits like apples and cranberries. Well, I didn’t have any cranberries on hand, so I used apples. This was a simple jam recipe. I used about 1 cup of table sugar, 1.5 quarts of Mountain-Ash berries, and 3 apples (I think… it may have been 4. They were Honey Crisp if I remember). I added all these together and simmered them for about 30-40 minutes. I let it cool just a bit, then I put the mixture into a blender and pureed it. Some people will use more sugar, but I didn’t want to mask the flavor of the berries. It has a similar but sweeter flavor to the syrup above, but be warned… it is very tart and bitter! Since I made just a small amount, I decided to store the jars in the refrigerator instead of doing a hot water bath.

Mountain-Ash Tincture: Tinctures are a medicinal product created by soaking a plant, mushroom, or animal product in alcohol. These are simple to make. I poured about a pint of berries into an old port bottle I found when I was living in Portugal. I topped the bottle off with Vodka. I will let this set for weeks to months. I have tested it after about a week, and it is strong stuff! Not just the Vodka… a lot of the tannins come through, at least so far. They may mellow a bit. One thing people may do to make tinctures more palatable is to add honey to the tincture. This would then be called an elixir. If the flavor doesn’t mellow, then I will probably be doing this.

 

From left to right: Mountain-Ash Mead, Mountain-Ash Syrup, Mountain-Ash and Apple Jam (three jars), and Mountain-Ash Tincture

 

All photos in this article are ours. If you would like to use one, please let me know!

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