Rowan tree usually grows in mountains and on the banks of rivers, medowlands and you can also find them in parks and town gardens. Most of the tree is edible, but I usually just forage for the rowan berries which are high in Vitamin C.
It’s best to cook or process the berries and not to eat them raw. They are quite bitter to eat in the summer, but once frost has ‘bitten’ them, they soften and are much sweeter (the same as rosehips).
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Rowan Tree botanical name & Clasification
The rowan plant, also known as mountain ash, has the botanical name Sorbus aucuparia. It belongs to the plant family Rosaceae. Other common names for the rowan include witch wiggin tree, keirn, and cuirn.
Where is rowan tree native?
The rowan tree, or Sorbus aucuparia, is native to cooler regions of the northern hemisphere, including almost all of Europe and the Caucasus up to Northern Russia and Siberia. However, it is not native to Southern Spain, Southern Greece, or Sardinia. It is also found across the UK, particularly in the north and west, and often grows in high-altitude locations.
Where to find rowan tree in the UK
In the UK, the rowan tree can be found in a variety of habitats. It grows in most parts of Britain but is more common in the north and west, and is prevalent throughout Scotland. The rowan can also be found at higher altitudes than most other native trees, often on mountains and heathland, as well as along woodland edges. It is also frequently planted in towns and gardens, because it looks very pretty.
Rowan tree season – Flowers & Berries
Rowan trees typically flower in late spring to early summer. The berries usually ripen by early to mid-autumn, offering a brilliant display of red, orange, or sometimes yellow or pink berries, which can persist on the tree into winter.
How to identify rowan tree
- Leaves: Rowan leaves are compound with 5-8 pairs of leaflets plus a terminal leaflet (usually 11-15 leaflets in total), which are serrated or toothed. They are typically dark green on top and lighter, often grey-green, underneath
- Bark: The bark of a rowan tree is smooth and can be silvery-grey to brown in color, often with visible lenticels that appear as horizontal bands
- Flowers: In spring, rowan trees produce clusters of creamy-white flowers, which are five-petalled and arranged in dense, flat-topped clusters known as corymbs
- Berries: Following the flowers, in late summer to autumn, the tree bears clusters of bright orange-red berries, which are a well-known feature of the rowan
- Shape: Rowan trees have a typically upright and slender shape, with a rounded crown, and they are often smaller in size compared to other trees
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Using rowan berries in cooking
Rowan berries have a sharp, bitter taste due to high levels of parasorbic acid, which can be toxic in large quantities. Remember to always cook rowan berries before consumption, as the raw berries contain potentially harmful substances that are broken down by heat. It is also recommended to wait until after the first frost to harvest rowan berries, as this can reduce their bitterness.
- Rowan Jelly: This is perhaps the most popular use of rowan berries. The berries are cooked with sugar and often combined with apples for their natural pectin to help set the jelly. The resulting preserve is tart and flavorful, commonly served with meats, especially game and lamb
- Rowan Berry Jam: Similar to jelly, but typically with a thicker, more textured consistency that includes bits of fruit, rowan berry jam can be sweetened and spiced to taste, making it a unique accompaniment to cheese and bread .
- Rowan Berry Capers: Pickled rowan berries can be used as a substitute for capers, giving a similar burst of tartness to dishes such as salads, pasta, and fish
- Rowan Berry Wine: The berries can be fermented to make country wine, which is a traditional homemade fruit wine with a distinctive flavor profile.
- Rowan Berry Syrup: The berries can be boiled with sugar and water to make a syrup, which can be used to flavor drinks, desserts, or as a drizzle on pancakes and ice cream.
- Rowan Berry Sauce: Similar to cranberry sauce, rowan berry sauce can be a tangy accompaniment to meats and is especially popular as part of a traditional roast.
Foraging safely for rowan berries
- Correct Identification: Make sure you can positively identify the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia). Look for its distinctive features such as compound leaves, clusters of bright red berries, and creamy-white flowers in the spring. If you’re unsure, consult a field guide or an experienced forager
- Avoid Contaminated Areas: Do not forage near busy roads, industrial areas, or where pesticides and herbicides may have been used. Berries from these areas could be contaminated with pollutants.
- Permission: Always seek permission if you’re foraging on private land. Foraging on public land is usually allowed in the UK, but local bylaws may restrict it, so it’s best to check the regulations in your area.
- Sustainable Harvesting: Only harvest what you need and leave plenty of berries for wildlife and for the plant to reproduce. A good rule of thumb is to take no more than one-third of the available fruit from any single tree.
- Harvesting Time: The best time to harvest rowan berries is after the first frost, which can help reduce their bitterness. However, you can also pick them before the frost and freeze them to achieve a similar effect.
- Prepare Properly: Remember that rowan berries should not be eaten raw in significant quantities due to the presence of parasorbic acid. Cooking or freezing the berries is essential to convert the acid into the non-toxic sorbic acid.
- Allergies and Reactions: If you’re trying rowan berries for the first time, be cautious of potential allergic reactions or sensitivities. Start with a small quantity to see how your body reacts.
Medicinal properties of rowan berries
- Antioxidant: Rowan berries contain high levels of antioxidants, which help to combat free radicals in the body and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including certain types of cancer
- Vitamin C: They are a good source of vitamin C, which is important for the immune system, skin health, and overall well-being. Vitamin C also helps in the absorption of iron and the maintenance of connective tissue
- Anti-inflammatory: Traditional medicine has used rowan berry juice to reduce inflammation, particularly in the respiratory tract, and to alleviate sore throats and asthma symptoms
- Digestive Health: The berries are known to contain sorbic acid, which can act as a natural preservative and may have a beneficial effect on maintaining a healthy digestive system.
- Kidney and Metabolic Health: Some sources suggest that rowan berries can help treat kidney diseases and diabetes, and have been used in herbal medicine to address these conditions
Rowan berries nutritional content
- Vitamins: Aside from vitamin C, rowan berries also contain vitamin A, which is important for vision, immune function, and skin health.
- Dietary Fiber: They are a good source of dietary fiber, which is beneficial for digestive health and can help regulate blood sugar levels.
- Minerals: Rowan berries include minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which are essential for bone health and metabolic processes.
- Phytonutrients: They contain various phytonutrients, including flavonoids and phenolic compounds, which contribute to their antioxidant activity.
Rowan tree in folklore, legends and history
The rowan tree holds a significant place in folklore, legends, and history, particularly within European and especially Celtic and Norse traditions.
- Protection: Rowan trees have long been thought to possess protective qualities. They were believed to guard against witchcraft and enchantment, and people often planted them near homes and sacred sites. In Norse mythology, the rowan is said to have saved the god Thor from being swept away by a river, and thus it is sometimes referred to as the “Thor tree”
- Celtic Lore: In Celtic mythology, the rowan is known as the Tree of Life and is associated with courage, wisdom, and protection. It’s linked to the goddess Brighid, the patroness of the arts, healing, smithing, spinning, and weaving. Celtic people often used rowan wood to make spindles and spinning wheels
- Scottish Folklore: In Scotland, the rowan tree is held in high esteem and is associated with magic and protection. It was often planted near gateways and doors to ward off evil, and sprigs of rowan were carried by individuals for personal protection or used in cattle sheds to protect livestock
- Christian Symbolism: In some Christian traditions, the rowan was said to have been made from the wood of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, or conversely, that the cross was made from a rowan tree, which led to the belief that the tree could ward off evil and prevent harm.
- Folk Medicine: The rowan was also used in folk medicine, with its berries being used to treat ailments or made into rowan jelly, which was believed to have health benefits.
This blog post was originally written on 9 February 2024 and last updated on 9 February 2024.