During a recent walk in the neighbourhood, I couldn’t help but admire the mountain ash trees, their clusters of bright red berries dusted with fine powdery snow. They are certainly decked out for the festive season! The birds weren’t hungry enough this fall to pick the trees clean – judging by the way they went after the Schubert chokecherries in the driveway, mountain ash do not appear to be the current rage in bird food. Mountain ash trees (also known as “rowan” trees) are common ornamentals in western Canada due to their excellent cold tolerance and general lack of pickiness regarding soil type – plus, with their gorgeous berries and interesting foliage, they have that whole aesthetic thing going on. Many of the mountain ash trees we have in Alberta are Sorbus americana, with fruit that is so bitter that it is nearly unpalatable to humans, but in Europe, the fruit of Sorbus aucuparia, particularly the cultivar ‘Edulis’, is actually fairly widely used as a condiment. Fresh-picked, the berries (botanically called “pomes”) are still hard on the tastebuds, but apparently they make an excellent, albeit seriously tart, jelly that is often used with meat and poultry dishes. If mixed with other berries or fruit, such as apples, blueberries, or blackberries, mountain ash berries can be used to make a sweet jam spread. And, apparently, in centuries gone by, an alcoholic liquor called diodgriafel – a Welsh specialty – was made from fermented mountain ash berries. (I don’t know whether or not that particular beverage is still being produced – a call out to anyone who might know, or better yet, have tasted it!). At any rate, diodgriafel was certainly a libation with a serious health benefit: mountain ash berries are chock-ful of vitamin C, and were used to ward off scurvy before other vitamin C-rich fruits such as lemons became more accessible to everyone.
Bottom’s up, and happy holidays!