Can birds eat poisonous berries?

Can you eat rowan berries or are they poisonous?

Who does not know them, the large, apple-like, orange-red to coral-red berries of the mountain ash, the so-called rowan berries. They are extremely decorative and valuable forage for birds and insects. They also play a special role in mythology. To this day, the opinion persists that one cannot eat rowan berries. But is that the truth or is it just superstition?


Edible or Poisonous?

In the botanical sense, the colorful, spherical berries of the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) are apple fruits. They usually hang on the tree in dense umbels until winter. The prejudice about the toxicity of rowan berries and that they cannot be eaten is widespread. This misconception is reinforced by the fact that the berries taste very bitter raw. But the exact opposite is the case.

  • Rowan berries are not poisonous
  • Fully ripe, cooked and / or well frozen, edible
  • Inedible and incompatible in the raw state
  • Consumed raw in higher doses, slightly poisonous
  • For both humans and pets
  • Parasorbic acid, responsible for the bitter taste
  • Is largely destroyed during cooking and by the effects of frost
  • Converts to sorbic acid
  • Bitter taste disappears
  • Then eat fruits without hesitation
Note: Even if the rowanberry is basically not poisonous, it can lead to intolerance after eating. For example, if you are allergic to one of the ingredients.

Main ingredients

The parasorbic acid contained is largely responsible for the unpleasant taste. There is a particularly large amount of it in the seeds, of which each berry has about three pieces. In addition to parasorbic acid, they contain many vitamins, especially vitamin C and provitamin A, as well as minerals, trace elements, secondary plant substances, essential oils, fiber such as pectin, anthocyanins (plant pigments) and sorbitol.

Raw, incompatible with humans and pets

Intolerance only occurs when consuming large quantities of raw and unripe berries. In humans, nausea, vomiting, pain in the lower abdomen and diarrhea as well as intoxicating conditions and irritation of the mucous membranes can occur. However, first aid measures are usually not required. Children and pets are particularly at risk. It is best for children to completely refrain from consuming rowanberries. The raw berries are considered to be slightly poisonous for dogs. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and salivation can also occur here.

Harvesting the berries

The bright red fruits of the mountain ash can no longer be overlooked from the end of August. They hang on the tree in large umbels and do not go unnoticed by birds and insects.

  • Before you start harvesting, try fruit
  • The content of bitter substances can vary from year to year
  • Extremely bitter taste does not go away completely when cooked
  • Ripe for harvest when the berries are intensely orange-red or red
  • Fully ripe fruits can be easily detached from the stem
  • Process quickly after harvesting
  • If stored in the meantime, quickly dry and wrinkled

After cool summers with little sunshine, the harvest time can be postponed until October. But that's not bad, on the contrary, because if the fruits are left hanging until after the first frost, this can, as already mentioned, significantly soften the bitter taste, they become sweeter. The longer they freeze, the better they taste.

Tip: With the large amount of berries these trees normally carry, it is usually enough to pick only the lower ones and leave the upper ones to the birds and insects.

Diverse uses

In nutrition

If you want to eat rowanberries, you should prepare them beforehand, e.g. with delicious jams, jellies and compotes as well as juice or alcoholic specialties such as liqueur and rowanberry brandy. But also as part of smoothies or as a sauce. Together with quinces, pears or apples, you can conjure up a tasty rowanberry purée.

Lovers of Indian cuisine can make a delicious chutney out of it. They also go very well with game dishes. It is also conceivable to use it as an ingredient in cakes and pastries. You can also use the dried berries, for example for a warming fruit or herbal tea. As with freezing and cooking, the parasorbic acid should also evaporate during drying.

Tip: Not only the berries can be used, but also the buds, which smell and taste like bitter almonds. You can make use of this in a pesto by soaking it in olive oil, mashing it and mixing it with the pesto.

In medicine

Not only can rowan berries be eaten, they also have a certain medicinal effect. Due to their high vitamin C content, they were often used against scurvy (vitamin deficiency disease) in the past. Sorbitol was obtained as a sugar substitute for diabetics. The provitamin A acts as an antioxidant and gives the fruits their intense color. Its ingredients are still used today for a wide variety of complaints such as rheumatism, gout, kidney diseases or bronchitis.

For example, chewing fresh, raw berries can help relieve constipation. In contrast, the dried fruits help with diarrhea. They are also said to be a very effective remedy for hoarseness, tonsillitis and metabolic problems and to dehydrate the body. They are also used in veterinary medicine, for example as a remedy for so-called goat or pig rot.

Likelihood of confusion

  • Risk of confusion with the service tree

  • In growth form, with leaves and fruits, both very similar
  • Clear differences in bark, buds and fruits
  • Rowanberry has a smooth bark
  • Is inedible raw
  • Buds are black-brown and hairy
  • The bark of the service tree is finely scaly and cracked
  • Fruits small, apple or pear shaped
  • Brownish-green and reddish on the sunny side
  • The berries can be eaten raw
  • Buds of the service tree are green-brown

Edible varieties

Sorbus aucuparia 'Edulis' / Moravian mountain ash

The Moravian mountain ash presents itself from May to June in beautiful, brilliant white flowers. It gives off a delicate, pleasant scent. The flowers, arranged in flat panicles, develop into extremely decorative, bright coral-red, large, round berries. They are edible and ready for harvest from August. Because they contain less tannic acid than other varieties, they are less bitter. They are particularly suitable for making jelly, jam and compote.

Sorbus aucuparia 'Rosina'

This mountain ash also delights its owners in spring with a rich display of flowers, which attracts a large number of useful insects. The berries are large to very large and have an intense orange-red color. They appear around the end of August and are ideal for preparing liqueurs and compotes, but also for juicing.

Sorbus aucuparia 'concentrate'

The bright white flowers are also the first thing that catches the eye with this variety. The orange-red berries are slightly smaller than those of the 'Rosina' variety, but contain twice as much vitamin C. They can be harvested from the end of August to the beginning of October. They can be used to make juice and to make jellies, jams or liqueurs.

Tip: Both the flowers and later the berries form a wonderful contrast to the green, feathery foliage in each of these varieties.