Forage Wild Rowan Berries for a Cranberry Substitute (with Swedish Meatball Recipe)

Reader Contribution by Marion Gabriela Wick
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Rowan berries are acrid and sour and how the heck can you eat them?

Some people believe that they are poisonous too. Which is true, at least a little, because the raw ones contain a substance causing nausea, if too many raw berries are eaten. But in fact, it’s almost impossible to eat a sickening amount of raw rowans, because they do taste awful, really!

Once cooked, they are completely safe to eat and also have lost the acrid fraction of their taste, which then has turned into kind of a pleasant bitterness.

Here, in Atlantic northern Europe, people are quite familiar with using rowans in recipes one normally would use cranberries in. Rowans are a good replacement. Cranberries need very low soil PH and don’t agree with our Atlantic winters. Due to warm Gulf Stream drift towards our shores, it happens, that a change of wind direction from east to west can cause temperature jumps from -20 to + 40 degrees Fahrenheit and back down within a couple of days. Cranberry shrubs would lose their buds once they thaw out and re-freeze. Rowan trees are much more tolerant against “yoyo-style temperatures”.

If you want to pick rowans, go for the plump red ones, the small, bright orange or yellowish berries taste far worse than those. Red and orange berries grow on different shrubs/small trees. They are actually two different kinds of rowan trees, very closely related. Here in northern Europe, people call the dark ones “sweet rowans” though they aren’t sweet at all.

Our Favorite RecipeUsing Rowans

It is easily made. It’s a kind of jam we would be eating along with meatballs, venison or fish. Rowans contain lots of pectin, so the only thing you need in addition to make jam, is sugar. About the same amount of sugar (or slightly more) in weight, you have rowans.

Blend sugar and berries and let sit overnight until some juice oozes out. Then process in a blender, until mixture has turned to a pulp. Boil for 5 minutes and put into canning jars. That’s it. If you want a kind of sweet jam to spread on bread or pancakes, you should substitute half of rowans weight for sweet pears.

But of course, I will not let you away without our family’s recipe for meatballs in gravy.

Swedish Meatballs in Gravy Recipe

Kødboller, we call them, and no, they are not Swedish only, though they were made famous by a certain Swedish furniture chain. People all over northern Europe like eating them in winter. Our recipe isn’t for people counting calories, but for those, doing hard physical work on cold winters days.


• Minced pork and/or beef
• 1 finely chopped small onion per pound of meat
• Pepper, salt, mustard powder, mashed garlic
• Semolina or grits
• Lard for frying
• Cream
• A laurel leaf,
• 2 juniper berries,
• salt and pepper,
• Tbsp soy sauce,
• 2 Tbsp powdered mushrooms (or mushroom extract) per pint of cream.


1.Blend meat, onions and spice, add semolina or grits until you are able roll it into small balls smoothly (if you use grits, you may let it sit for a while before you start rolling)

2. Fry meat balls until they are nice and brown. Add cream and spices and boil until cream thickens up a bit.

3. Serve with rowan jam and mashed potatoes.

Cultivating Rowan Trees

Rowan trees (Sorbus aucaparia) need cold climate (cold temperate or subarctic), in Europe they grow north of 52nd latitude or high up on mountains, that’s why another name for the rowan tree is “mountain ash”. Though rowan trees are not related to ash trees at all, but to chokeberries, sorb tree, checker tree and whitebeam.

If you want to plant rowan trees, make sure, they’re getting full sunlight all year around. Their natural habitat is forest edges and clearings and the south edge of arctic tundra. They would grow in shady areas alright, but would not bear any fruit. Birds like the berries very much (the German word for Rowans actually translates to “bird berries”) and if you want to harvest more than just a few, you may consider covering shrubs with netting.

Rowan trees would grow in nearly any kind of soil and are fairly tolerant to wet ground as well as to drought. Their seeds need cold temperatures to be able to germinate (Rowans are slow starters and it takes quite a lot of patience, to grow them from seeds.)

Here people say if rowan trees are bearing plenty of fruit, a very long or very cold winter is on its way.

Marion Gabriela Wick lives on a secluded, 3.5-acre homestead in North Frisia, Germany where she guides tours to the European Wadden Sea National Park and the salt marshes located almost at her doorstep. She has been instrumental in protecting Wiedingharde Beach’s unique “fruity heritage” made up from thousands of wild and heritage fruit trees and shrubs growing along roads and trenches, around fields and farm houses, planted by generations of farmers trying to protect their cottages and grain fields from the regions very harsh weather conditions. Read more from Marion at The Fairies Garden and connect with her on Facebook. Read all of Marion’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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