Mountain Ash Berries – Long Lasting and Versatile

As winter encroaches on a wildcrafter’s three seasons of plenty, it is easy to assume that there is nothing that we can harvest from nature in late fall and winter. That is far from true. In other articles, I have referred to cattails, goldenrod, tansy horsetail, white willow, spruce buds and rosehips, to name a few of the remnants of the fall harvest.

One of the most obvious, easily harvested in the wild and domesticated crops and long-lasting foods is the mountain ash berry.

Many people believe these berries to be poisonous, or, at least, toxic. There is little evidence to support this belief, and an abundance of evidence of people harvesting and using this bitter berry frequently, with no ill effect. However, that is not to say that some people do not experience adverse effects from consumption of mountain ash. There are people who can not tolerate the innocuous morel mushroom, after all!

As with most of the fruits and vegetables with bright colouration, the bright reddish-orange ash berries are rich in anti-oxidants and vitamin C. This makes them fantastic survival foods in winter, since the berries cling to the branches months after the snow is waist-deep. Unless you have raccoons and bears in your area, many animals do not touch them. However, many winter birds do rely on these fruits for sustenance.

I have used these tough little berries in bannock, with pemmican, and as part of a trail mix. However, the berry has an almost acidic and bitter flavour, and requires the company of sweeter fruits and nuts to offset its overpowering taste in these mixes. Mountain ash, like saskatoons, is an excellent garnish or spice for beef and harsh, wild meats. A few in a vegetable soup provides a good flavour balance. Yet, I admit that my favourite use of them is for slightly less acceptable purposes: the making of wine. This is not a wine for the faint-of-heart, though, since it probably has a sweetness rating below zero!

More domestic users of the abundant berry use mountain ash to make jams and jellies. Like chokecherry, cooking the berries does modify its extreme taste, and a mountain ash jelly is an excellent morning treat. The British have dozens of great recipes for this tree treat.

One of the difficulties in handling the fruit of this medium-sized tree is that the berries grow in clusters, and, when you pick them, you pick stems and all. This requires careful culling and cleaning before use, unless you enjoy picking bits of wood out of your teeth!

From late November to early March, mountain ash berries stand out against the white background, almost daring you to pick them. Dare, and you will enjoy a bountiful harvest, offering a variety of culinary uses.