Mountain-Ashes – Sorbus SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Rose Tree of Wild Plants

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In Ojibwe, makominagaawanzh, mountain ash isn’t a true ash tree, but a rose family tree. It’s one of a few edible and medicinal plants with berries that look like tiny apples. Mountain-ashes are called sorb apples for short.

When Haliburton Flora was compiled, mountain ash (sorbus Americana) was fairly common on wet or moist lakeshores, and roadsides with shrubs and young trees. I doubt this is the case anymore, as I can’t find any in my neighborhood and actually had to drive half an hour away for pictures. Most of our roadsides don’t have “young trees” anymore, which may account for the drop in population. Yet it’s common in Algonquin park.

Showy mountain-ash (sorbus decora) was recorded in two locations here. In Algonquin park showy is uncommon. European mountain ash AKA rowan, a nonnative, is also spotted there rarely too. There could be hybrids. It’s hard to tell the difference between Mt-ash species; but the usage of all sorbus subgenus sorbus is the same.

Mountain-Ashes - Sorbus SPP.
Mountain-Ashes – Sorbus SPP.

There are lookalikes. I’ve had moments when I thought a huge royal fern was a mountain ash. The resemblance is shared with ash trees of course, and to some degree sumac and sorbaria.

Edible Uses of Mountain-Ashes

The berries are called pomes as they resemble apples. These cranberry-tasting bitter fruits need to be cooked. They are extremely bitter when green and unpalatable even when ripe. The secret is waiting for a few frosts to sweeten them a little. (A fairly common secret that applies to various wild fruits. Even the wildlife waits for frosts in some cases.)

Older sources may say it’s edible raw, but I guess they didn’t know it contains parasorbic acid, which can have worse effects than an upset tummy. Kidney damage is possible. Heating and drying with heat will make it edible, changing parasorbic to sorbic acid. Maybe that is another reason why they animals wait to eat them after frosts, as freezing changes it some, to a lesser degree. But I’m just theorizing.

The fruit is cooked and usually sweetened, perhaps made like a cranberry sauce or mixed with sweeter berries. Jams, jellies, and pies are generally made in combination with other fruit. A traditional mix being rowan and apple jelly, usually served with meat. Add just enough water to cover the pomes and simmer 20 min. Strain the liquid, then add 1 cup of sugar per cup of liquid. Boil and reduce until it gels (when cooled in the freezer for a moment).

Other uses for the berries include marinades, ales, and bittersweet wine; hence the folk name “wine tree”.

There are cultivated varieties used more often now for cooking and fermenting.

The pomes are rich in vitamins C, E, and antioxidants.

Medicinal Uses of Mountain-Ashes

Mountain-ash is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive

Medicinal tags include Astringent, Diuretic, Emetic, and Laxative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the usual digestive-astringent uses like fruit juiced for constipation, inner bark steeped in a tea for nausea, etc. Contrary to this, the leaves steeped in water can make you vomit.

The bark is a more astringent version of cherry bark. The bark contains toxic hydrocyanic acid, same as cherry.

Mountain-Ashes - Sorbus SPP.
Mountain-Ashes – Sorbus SPP.

Alternative Uses of Elder Leaved Sumach

The highly astringent bark is used for tanning and as a mordant for dyeing.

The strong flexible wood is nice for tool handles and for carving waking sticks.

Oh, and it may be a portal between this world and otherworld. 🙂

Growing Sorbus SPP.

I have heard complaints about mountain ash looking pretty ragged in the Autumn, after being nibbled at by wildlife. Of course if you’re here and into native plants you’ve probably ran across the realization that means the plant is part of the ecosystem and food chain. But for those who like it nicer and neater it may not be the tree you want in a showy spot. The folk name witchwood is due to the tree being associated with pagans over in Europe. Personally, I am fine with it front and center and people can feel free to think I’m some shabby chic witch.

You can pick ripe berries, dry them, remove a tiny seed and sow it. It may take two years to germinate. Or for a quicker result, replant young ones who are in a bad spot or buy from a native plant nursery. Showy is the hardier of our two natives.


The berries are toxic when consumed raw.

The bark contains toxic hydrocyanic acid.

You could walk through that portal?

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvests

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

Eating Wild in Eastern Canada: A Guide to Foraging the Forests, Fields, and Shorelines

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

An Eclectic Guide to Trees East of the Rockies

Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

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