Rowan Buds – Edibility, Identification, Distribution, Recipes, Cocktails

Rowan, aka mountain ash (though it is not closely related to true ash trees – presumably the name developed because it has a similar leaf structure).

Sorbus aucuparia

Rowan buds at their sweet marzipan stage. Note that the leaves are still to fully open

The rowan, or mountain ash is one of my favourite trees. I was a bit upset that it only narrowly missed out on becoming Scotland’s national tree. I’ve nothing against the winner, Scots Pine, but it strikes me as a bit a unfair contest as it already had Scotland in its name! Rowan trees grow naturally high up Scotland’s wilder glens, often out of unlikely looking boulders (where rampaging deer can’t destroy them in their infancy) and  alongside tumbling mountain burns. Their creamy summer blossoms, lush foliage and abundant red-orange fruits are gorgeously romantic in their natural home.

That very attractiveness, as well as their quick-growing hardiness, and strong folk associations (like seeing off witches) means they have long been domesticated and now are common in gardens, parks and urban settings – especially super market car parks. I sometimes find myself wondering if they miss their beautiful wild home!

A rowan tree in its typical wild Scottish habitat, Galloway

Its quite amazing to me that 99% of recipes you come across for rowan are for their berries. I guess its because they are abundant and easy to harvest in large quantities with barely a stoop, and they certainly look appealing. But the flavour of the berries, is to my taste, both sour and bitter, and not particularly tasty versions of either. Nor do they have much in the way of other flavours to raise them up – except perhaps a hint of baby sick? No wonder that most recipes for rowan berries require vast amounts of sugar. I’m not saying that you can’t make something tasty with them, but they do tend to need a lot of help.

But if you visit them in early spring (mid March through April in SW Scotland) you’ll find their young flower buds and leaf buds are full of the most wonderful sweet almond flavour.

Rowan flower buds and young leaf shoots at the perfect stage for maximum sweet almond flavour

Blossoms of prunus species such as blackthorn, plum and cherry, tend to have a bitter almond flavour, while rowan leaf buds and flower buds tend to be pleasingly sweet, like marzipan. Whitebeam (sorbus aria) buds are equally tasty, possibly even sweeter, leaving a sticky residue on your fingers when you harvest them.

Blackthorn (sloe) blossom is one of the first white flower to emerge in spring hedgerowsh and as a bitter almond flavour

The compounds that give rowan and whitebeam buds, and many other of the wider rose (rosacea) family,  and especially the prunus genus within that family (notably blackthorn, plum, apple and cherry) a distinctive almond flavour to their pips, stones, young leaves and blossoms, are a little troublesome.  Cyanogenic glycosides convert into hydrogen cyanide upon digestion which is toxic in high dosage.

Whitebeam leaf buds are sticky and full of sweet almond flavour at this stage

Dosage is, as always, the key word here. We eat things that can be bad for us all the time. That isn’t the problem. How much we eat of these things in relation to our body weight and personal biochemistry is the issue. I unpick this subject a bit on this post:

The Day I Ate A Deadly Plant – The Spectrum of Edibility

Cherry blossoms (both fruiting and ornamental varieties) have strong bitter almond flavours in their blossoms, for which they are much loved in Japanese cuisine

Most people will consume a fair amount of cyanogenic glycosides in apple pips during their lives, and this is not problematic. To put this into perspective, an average healthy human would have to eat about 54 grams of apple pips to become life-threateningly ill – that’s about 2000 pips in one sitting. And as pips and seeds are generally evolved to pass through digestive systems, you’d also need to crush them first. The point being, you’d have to work pretty damn hard to kill yourself with apple pips! I can’t find any specific data on the the cyanogenic glycoside content of rowan buds, but a healthy person would need to consume quite a lot to endanger their health.

You can read more about the chemical safety of almond tasting species here.

Nibbling a few fresh sweet buds from a rowan tree won’t do you any harm, and is one of the great sweet treats of spring.

Young whitebeam buds – full of sweet almond flavour

If you still feel nervous, the good news is that hydrogen cyanide is destroyed by heating to 70ºC, so syrups and jams should be quite safe. What to do with them…? Here are a few ideas and recipes:

  • Infuse them into milk to make an almond flavoured custard
  • Infuse into cream to make a decedent ice cream
  • Blitz them through cake and frangipani mixes
  • Infuse them into anything really!
  • Syrup is a good way to go….

 

Rowan Bud Syrup Recipe

You could substitute any of the other almondy tasting buds and blossoms mentioned above for the rowan buds, but remember that some are quite bitter compared to rowan or whitebeam.

  • Place young rowan flower buds and very young leaf buds in a pan
  • Cover with cold water, measuring how much water you use
  • Add 100 grams of sugar per 100 ml of water. You can make a stronger, thicker syrup by adding up to twice the amount of sugar as water. Stronger syrups keep better.
  • Turn on the heat and stir to dissolve the sugar
  • Raise the temperature to 70ºC. If you don’t have a thermometer, this is just above the temperature most humans can rapidly dip a finger into without getting scalded! I do actually use this method myself, but i’m clearly a dangerous and stupid person! 😉
  • The longer you go over this temperature, the less almond flavour your syrup will have
  • Leave to cool
  • Strain into bottles sterilised to a degree commensurate with your fussiness over hygiene, how long you intend to keep the syrup, and how much you can generally be arsed with that sort of cleaning rigmarole. Don’t throw away your syrup-coated buds! See below…
  • Adding 10% vodka to your syrup will increase its keeping qualities, or keep in the fridge, or freeze in plastic bottles

You can use this syrup for pouring on puddings, pancakes, waffles…whatever you fancy. Or use it in baking instead of imported almonds. And once you have a syrupBest of all, use it to sweeten cocktails and liqueurs.

Don’t waste the syrup covered buds – they can be dehydrated to make crunchy almondy sweets. Or better still a delicious almond liqueur…

 

Rowan Liqueur Recipe

In honour of the highland heritage of rowan trees, and the very well known Italian almond liqueur brand I call this a-McRetto and it is a great favourite with Mrs Wildfood!

  • Make the syrup as described above
  • Put the syrup covered rowan buds left over into a kilner jar
  • Cover with cheap vodka
  • Leave to steep for about 4 weeks, giving it a wee shake every now and then
  • Strain out the rowan buds
  • Taste the vodka and sweeten (if you wish) with the rowan bud syrup you made earlier, to taste. By adding more syrup, you are reducing the strength of the liqueur. About 20% – 25% ABV is about right for our household. Almond liqueurs are usually made very sweet, but you can suit yourself.

If you want to crank up the almond flavour, you can add more fresh buds to the vodka, but remember that you are essentially extracting a precursor to cyanide by doing this, and adjust how much you drink of the resulting liqueur accordingly!

 

Rowan Bud Whisky Cocktail – The Godfather of Soil

Rowan Cocktail – The Godfather of Soil, with Berberry blossoms

This is the wild variant of the classic Godfather whisky/amaretto cocktail. I got the foraging-appropriate name from a nickname given to a lovely old farmer (who liked a dram) on Arran called…James Brown!

  • 20ml of rowan liqueur
  • 60ml of whisky (Scotch works, bourbon is lovely for this drink)
  • Stir over ice
  • Bruise a rowan bud and serve on top – the aroma from the bud should enhance the drinking experience. Berberry blossoms are also in season at this time of year, and make a very pretty garnish too.

A nice variation on this I call The Godfather of Sour :

  • 30ml whisky (Scotch is good, bourbon is better in this instance)
  • 30ml Rowan bud liqueur
  • 20ml Sea buckthorn juice (or 30 ml lemon juice)
  • 10ml Rowan bud syrup (or to taste)
  • 1 Egg white
  • Shake all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker
  • Strain out the ice and shake again (this is called a reverse dry shake, and helps to emulsify the egg white, which gives the lovely creamy texture to the finished drink. You can leave out the egg white if you are squeamish)
  • Fine strain into the glass of your choice
  • A nice garnish for this is berberry blossoms, which are both floral and sour.

 

Rowan Bud Gin Cocktail – The Budding Botanist

The Budding Botanist Cocktail

If you are feeling a bit more ambitious, this is a great way to combine the early flavours of spring using a range of early spring flower buds and leaf shoots. I developed this recipe for my friends at Bruichladdich Distillery.

  • 50ml The Botanist Gin
  • 25ml Rowan shoot liqueur
  • 15ml Magnolia petal/bud shrub : (Infuse some magnolia petals in cider vinegar for 4 days and some others in blossom honey for 4 days, then mix vinegar and honey to taste).
  • Sweet cicely soda to taste : Rapid infuse a handful of sweet cicely leaves in mineral water using an iSi cream whipper and 2 charges of N2O then releasing the pressure, straining and recharging with one of CO2
  • Sweet cicely tincture : Made by infusing sweet cicely leaves and stems in strong neutral spirit for 1  week
  • Garnish with mahonia/berberry blossoms and baby rowan buds
  • Method: Stir the gin, liqueur and shrub over ice. Strain into glass with ice. Add soda to taste, stiring gently. Scatter garnish. Mist with sweet cicely tincture.

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2 Comments

  • Andrew Malcolm says:

    Hi-been considering making tea from slightly older whitebeam leaves. We picked some to identify-a few different varieties in Ireland- left some to dry by mistake and they now smell delicious, a wee bit like Earl Grey…very wee bit. Have you any thoughts on why this shouldn’t be possible?

    • Mark Williams says:

      Hi. Main thing to consider is the hydrogen cyanide precursor discussed in the post, but this is denatured at 70ºC, so should be fine for making tea.

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