Rowan berries: are they poisonous?


I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

The fruits of the mountain-ash tree, also called rowan berries, are full of vitamins. Find out how they are used medicinally and learn how to harvest and process them yourself.

Jar of rowan berry jam
Rowan fruits are edible and can be processed to make jams, purees and liqueur [Photo: Krzycho/]

The fruits of the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) are not well known as a wild fruit. It is even commonly believed that rowan tree berries are poisonous, when in fact, they are edible and rich in vitamins. Read on to learn more about harvesting and using these colourful berries.

Are rowan berries poisonous?

Rowan berries’ bright orange-red colour and astringent taste from the parasorbic acid have long given the impression that these fruits are poisonous. However, there are now rowan varieties with larger and tastier fruits that have been specially bred for consumption and processing. Rowan berries are not poisonous for pets either, but they usually avoid the berries because of their bright colour and bitter taste.

Can you eat rowan berries? Rowan berries are edible when ripe. In fact, the fruits of the variety Sorbus aucuparia var. edulis are sweet and almost bitter-free. That said, you should avoid eating fruits from just any rowan tree. The parasorbic acid in wild rowan berries can lead to kidney damage or other gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhoea, when consumed in large amounts. In fact, fresh rowan berries have historically been used as a laxative.

Bright red rowan berries
Rowan berries are harvested at full ripeness beginning in October [Photo: fasenda/]

Harvest, storage and preservation

The best time to harvest rowan berries is when they are fully ripe, as this is when the berries’ sugar content is highest. Rowan berries tend to develop their bright orange or red colouring from August to September and will be ready to harvest by October. To harvest the berries, break or cut off the fruit bunches from the tree. Bear in mind, the flower buds for the next year are located just below the fruit clusters, so avoid damaging them when harvesting. A fully grown rowan tree can offer between 20 and 40kg of fruit per harvest.

Once harvested, pluck the berries from the stems and wash them. After this, you can dry the berries in a dehydrator or on a baking tray in an oven at 40 °C. During the drying process, the parasorbic acid is broken down into harmless sorbic acid. You can store rowan berries in a dry, dark and cool spot for about a year. Another great option for preserving rowan berries is to freeze them while they are still fresh; they can then be processed further later.

Glass of rowan berry wine
Rowan berries can also be used to make syrups, rowan berry gin or fruit wine [Photo: Tasha Cherkasova/]

Rowan berry uses

Rowan tree berries have been processed into fruit wines and liqueurs, like rowan berry gin, for centuries. The berries can also be used candied, dried or raw in various sweet dishes such as compotes, purees, baked goods and mueslis. Popular rowan berry recipes often call for a rowan berry jam, which is generally mixed with sweeter fruits such as quinces, apples or pears. The berries can also be processed into a nectar, syrup, juice or jam. Aromatic and sour, a rowan berry fruit spread pairs well with meat, cheese platters and crumpets.

Medicinal uses

Rowan berries are rich in vitamin C and provitamin A. They also contain sugar and sorbitol, a fructose that is beneficial for diabetics. Consumed as a tea or extract, the berries help treat kidney diseases, diabetes and rheumatism. In herbal medicine, cooked rowanberry puree is used against diarrhoea, and fresh rowan berry fruit juice is used to strengthen the immune system to fight colds and flu-like infections.

Glass of rowan berry tea
Rowan berries are used in folk medicine for various ailments [Photo: Bozhena Melnyk/]

Visit our article on the chokeberry (Aronia) to learn more about a tree that is so closely related to the rowan tree that there are even hybrids between the two species. You’ll also find tips on how to plant and care for Aronia in order to attain an abundant harvest of tasty chokeberries.

Subscribe to the Plantura newsletter