Mountain ash is a name given to a species that belongs to the genus Sorbus (sub-genus Sorbus) of the Rosacaea family. Trees and shrubs of this species are tough and are known as rowans in Europe. They form exceptional garden decoration trees and are indigenous to the Northern Hemisphere, especially most regions of Europe, barring the far south, and also the northern regions of Asia. In the southern regions of its range, the species, particularly the Mediterranean region, it is only found growing in the highlands. Mountain ash is a deciduous tree and is in no way related to the true ash.
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Trees of this species are usually undersized, but some of them may be found growing up to a height of 60 feet. The trees or shrubs of this species bears alternate and pinnate (leaflets or primary divisions arranged on each side of a common stalk) leaves comprising anything between 11 to 17 leaflets that are oblong shaped. These leaflets are soft and have bristles on the downside. The mountain ash trees bear flat-topped clusters of creamy white hued blossoms during May. The fruits of the trees resemble round berries and have a vivid orange or radiant red hue. These berries grow in bunches and possess astringent properties and are used for therapeutic purposes.
It is interesting to note that while the mountain ash is a very popular ornamental tree these days, there was a time when the tree was considered to bring ill luck. It is possible that the ill repute of mountain ash was owing to the fact that Celtic Druids had revered the mountain ash. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the tree became associated with witchcraft in England. Somehow, the mountain ash earned a reputation as a symbol of atheists and something that was weird or ghostlike. There was a time when even the herbalists refused to make any mention of the mountain ash owing to its ill repute as a symbol of paganism. Nevertheless, the red berries of the tree were alluring for the birds and even the hunters used the fruits of mountain ash as baits or traps to entice the birds. This was the primary reason why the species acquired the name 'aucuparia' drawn from the Latin expression denoting 'to go fowling' or 'to go hunting birds'.
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When the early European settlers arrived in the New World (the North and South Americas), they brought with them the berries of the mountain ash, or rowans, as they called it. The rounded bright berries of mountain ash were comparable to the cranberries. People not only prepared several delicious items with these berries, such as jams, jellies, pies and even a bitter-sweet flavored wine, but the fruits of mountain ash also possessed numerous therapeutic properties. Basically, the fruits or berries were used as an astringent. Even today, herbal medicine practitioners recommend a tea prepared with the mountain ash berries to treat diarrhea as well as hemorrhoids (abnormally enlarged veins primarily owing to a constant augmentation in venous pressure, occurring inside the anal sphincter of the rectum and beneath the mucous membrane (internal hemorrhoid) or outside the anal sphincter and beneath the surface of the anal skin).
In addition, owing to the rich vitamin C content, the mountain ash berries were especially prescribed to treat scurvy (a disease with symptoms of swollen and bleeding gums, livid spots on the skin, prostration, etc) - caused by shortage of vitamin C in the body.
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As discussed above, the acerbic or caustic berries of the mountain ash are ingested in the form of jam or infusion to cure diarrhea and hemorrhoids. Infusions prepared with these rounded red berries may also be used for rinsing the mouth to treat tender throats as well as a wash for hemorrhoids and disproportionate discharge from the vagina.
The fruits or berries of the mountain ash may be consumed raw or cooked. In fact, these berries are very acidic and consuming large amounts of the raw mountain ash fruits may result in stomach disorders. While the berries may be dried, pounded and used as flour blended with cereals, despite their acidic properties, some people prepare jams, jellies and other preserves with them.
Harvesting of mountain ash berries is quite easy as each of them is approximately 7.5 mm in diameter and is produced in huge clusters. In many areas, the leaves as well as the flowers of the mountain ash are often used as a substitute for tea. Many believe that the young leaves of this species are useful as food during famines, but they enclose cyanogenic glycoside, which is considered to be toxic both for men and animals. Hence, one needs to be intensely hungry before they even contemplate of consuming this toxic leaves. According to reports available, the roasted seeds of mountain ash are also used as a substitute for coffee by people in many areas.
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The bark of the mountain ash trees possesses astringent properties and is widely used for treating diarrhea as well as a vaginal injection to cure leucorrhoea and other conditions. The red berry-like fruits of the trees possess anti-scorbutic (efficacious against scurvy) and astringent properties and they are used for the treatment of diarrhea and hemorrhoids. People suffering from these conditions are given jams or infusion prepared with the mountain ash fruits. In addition, infusion prepared with the mountain ash fruits may also be used as a gargle for sore throats and a wash to heal hemorrhoids and extreme vaginal discharges.
On the other hand, the seeds enclose a toxic substance known as cyanogenic glycoside which produces an extremely poisonous acid known as prussic acid when it comes in contact with or have a reaction with water. When taken in small measures, the seeds or medications prepared with the seeds encourage respiration, but when administered in large dosages, it results in breathlessness and may even result in respiratory failure and death. Hence, it is always advisable to get rid of the seeds before you use the fruits either as food or for therapeutic purposes. The flowers as well as the fruits of the mountain ash are known to be aperient (having a mild purgative or laxative effect), diuretic and emmenagogue (medication promoting menstrual discharge). Infusion prepared with the flowers and fruits of this tree is effective in treating excruciating menstruation, constipation as well as kidney diseases.
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The mountain ash seeds yield oil. The fruits of the tree are used to prepare a cosmetic facial mask that is applied with a view to treat wrinkled skin. The young branches of the tree form an important ingredient in preparing a black dye. In fact, all parts of the mountain ash tree have high tannin content and, hence, they can be used to prepare black dye. The trees are hardy and wind resistant making them a useful species in shelterbelt plantings. The timber of the mountain ash is tough, fine grained, and dense as well as flexible. While the wood turners recommend the mountain ash timber highly, the wood from the tree is also used to manufacture bands or rings for barrels, cogs as well as furniture.
The mountain ash is an indigenous plant in Europe, but over the years the species has been naturalized in several places across the globe, including North America where it is found growing in the wild from Newfoundland to south-western Alaska and British Columbia. The tree is also found in abundance in the region that is south to the northern region of the United States.
Mountain ash shrubs and trees thrive well in almost all practically fine soil and have a preference for full sunlight. Although the species is able to put up with some shade, it bears better and more fruits when grown in sunny locales. The trees of this species grow best in heavy clay soils. Mountain ash has a preference for a cool and humid place where the soil condition ranges from lighter neutral to somewhat acidic. In addition, the mountain ash also thrives well on chalk or acidic peats, but has an aversion to superficial soils as well as drought conditions. The trees of this species are extremely wind resistant and can even endure maritime locations. The trees are also resistant to wind pollution. A number of specific varieties of the mountain ash have been developed especially for their superior foods that are not only larger, but also sweeter compared to fruits borne by most varieties of the species. The young plants, particularly the seedlings of mountain ash, grow very rapidly. It is interesting to note that the berry-like red fruits of mountain ash are a favorite with the birds and as many as 28 different species of pests are related to this tree. While the trees adapt well in coppices, the young plants are vulnerable to fireblight (a plant disease that blackens the leaves).
The mountain ash is propagated by means of its seeds. It is best to sow the seeds in a cold frame as soon as they are mature or ripe. In case you possess an adequate amount of seeds, you may also sow some of them in seedbeds outdoors. If you are using stored seeds for propagation, you need to give them two weeks of warm followed by around 14 to 16 weeks of cold stratification for them to germinate better. Hence, it is important that you should sow the seeds as early as possible. When the seedlings have grown sufficient enough to be handled, take them out individually and plant them in separate containers. During the first one or two years of their existence, the seedlings have very little aerial growth as they are engaged in developing an excellent root system during this period. It is advisable to keep the pots in the cold frame during the first winter and subsequently plant them in their permanent positions outdoors during the following spring.
Chemical analysis of the mountain ash fruits or berries has established that they enclose tannins, sorbic acid, sorbitol, malic acid and vitamin C. The seeds of these berries contain cyanogenic glycosides that when in contact with water cause a chemical reaction producing the tremendously venomous prussic acid.
Consumption of large amounts of the raw mountain ash fruits or berries may result in vomiting, particularly if people are not habituated to taking the fruits. It is believed that the seeds of the mountain ash fruits enclose hydrogen cyanide, an element that gives the almonds their typical flavor. It is important to mention here that except for extremely bitter seeds of mountain fresh, it is safe to consume them in practical amounts. When taken in measured or small amounts, seeds containing hydrogen cyanide have demonstrated that they promote respiration as well as perk up the digestion. Some herbal medicine practitioners also assert that the seeds of mountain ash are useful in treating cancer. Nevertheless, when they are consumed in excess, the seeds may also result in breathlessness and even cause death.