I'm at ease in my crimson cluster.
The tree blazes
with clusters of cousins -
my clusters the main one and I
am the important berry in it.
Tomorrow, or tomorrow's tomorrow,
a flock of fieldfares
will gobble our whole generation.
I'm not troubled. My seed
will be shamelessly dropped
And in the next years after next year, I'll be a tree
swaying and swinging
with a genealogy of berries.
I'll be that fine thing, an ancestor.
I'll spread out my branches
for the guzzling fieldfares.
Anyone driving around Scotland in October will not fail to see a tree laden with bright red berries in just about every location. The tree in question is the Rowan tree and the berries its fruit which mature during the summer from the creamy-white sweet scented flower clusters in May.
The Rowan tree (Latin name - Sorbus aucuparia) is a native species to Scotland and perfectly suited to the rocky & poor soil terrain especially on the west coast. As well as its instantly distinguishable fruit, the trees leaf structure is equally recognisable with its pinnate (feather-like) construction of 5-8 leaves with serrated edges, finishing in a single leaf tip.
For autumn walkers & hikers another common sight is the unmistakable sight of piles of what look like chewed and spat out red berry skins and seeds. The rowanberry is a delicacy for birds especially the smaller birds, thrushes, blackbirds and fieldfares as MacCaig mentions in his poem. The fruit is an important food supply for them during the autumn and winter and these piles are the indigestible parts of the berry that the birds defecate. This is known as endozoochory and is key to the propagation of the tree in the Scottish landscape.
So if the Rowan berry is an important food supply for birds what is its relationship to humans?
Fid na ndruad - The Wizard’s tree
The Rowan tree has a long history in Celtic culture(others too - notably Norse) and folklore and is often associated with fighting off evil spirits. Its highly prized wood had many uses by Druids such as wands and then later by Christians to make crosses. The tree was often planted in ancient settlements and burial grounds to offer magical protection and in Scotland it is still considered taboo to cut down a Rowan tree.
The wood itself is prized by wood carvers and turners and makes a perfect walking stick, farm-tool handle or even bow and arrow. The berries can also be dried and made into necklaces.
Is the Rowanberry edible?
The berries themselves are absolutely not poisonous to humans as often thought. High in vitamin C and sorbic acid they are certainly not for eating raw as they are extremely astringent, but they are perfect for making jelly or syrup. The jelly provides a perfect accompaniment to game and cheese. It is important to pick the berries after a first frost as this ensures a more concentrated flavour.
How to make Rowanberry jelly:
There are many recipes for this jelly and we are using the most simple one. The first job is to collect the berries and always do this away from polluted areas and REMEMBER - leave some for the birds!
In order to provide sufficient pectin to enable the jelly to set sufficiently you will need to combine the berries with either a cooking apple(the cores) or even better, crab apples. Here is what you need to make approximately 8-10 jars of jelly
2 kg Rowan berries
2 kg crab apples or cooking apple cores
White sugar - once you have your strained liquid you will need 75% in weight of sugar for the final amount of liquid - so for example if you have 1000 ml you will need 750grms of sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
Wash and clean the berries removing all leaves and stalks and any insects - this can take a while!
Chop crab apples or cooking apples and combine with the berries into a heavy based jam saucepan and pour in enough water to cover the fruits.
Bring the mixture to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer gently so that all the fruits break down and become very soft. To ensure you maximise the flavour from the berries you can mash the fruits so that the berries skin is fully broken. This cooking process takes about 20 minutes.
Once the fruits are sufficiently cooked, take a muslin cloth and lay it over a large bowl. Pour the liquid and cooked pulp into the cloth and then gather up the edges of the cloth and tie the cloth and suspend above the bowl.(You need to find the best way to do this based on what you have around you - suspend from a chair for example)
You should allow the juice to drip from the bag overnight. Whatever you do, do not squeeze the cloth or the jelly will be cloudy at the end of the process and you will loose its orange clarity.
Once the straining process is complete you need to measure the amount of juice you have been able to extract. Pour into a saucepan and add the correct amount of sugar and the squeezed lemon juice.
Bring the liquid and sugar to the boil and continue rapidly to boil for at least 10 minutes or sufficiently so that the jelly reaches a setting point. A simple setting test is to spoon a little of the liquid onto a fridge-cooled plate and if you push it and it starts to wrinkle then it has set. Keep boiling until this test is passed.
You should have prepared sufficient sterilised jars(heated on a tray in the oven) and covers(held in boiled water). Once the liquid has reached its setting point pour it into the jars and fix the covers, upturning each jar so that the heat of the liquid helps to seal out any impurities. Remember to protect your hands at this stage of the process as the liquid is of course extremely hot.
Leave to cool and then prepare to admire and taste a deep orange coloured jelly.
There are of course many different variations - a popular one is to add sprigs of rosemary to each jar. Whatever your choice you will have made a unique product for your winter larder.