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Zingy Zanthoxylum americanum...aka: Northern Prickly Ash

Prickly ash branches in early spring before the leaves emerge

Red prickly ash berries in mid-August

When I first was introduced to Northern Prickly Ash, Zanthoxylum americanum, I was so delighted and surprised to meet a plant that grows in Minnesota that smells and tastes so citrusy. It is, in fact part of the the Rutaceae family, (and is not at all in the ash tree family) the same as citrus and Szechuan peppercorn and is the northern-most member of this plant family. How have I lived in Minnesota my entire life and never noticed this plant that is really so remarkable?! Prickly ash really grabs your attention with its very sharp thorns as well as the citrusy aroma found when brushing against its leaves and in the fruits found on the female shrubs. It grows in spreading shrubby groups, and can get to be about 15-20 feet tall. I tend to see it in the woods near my home, in Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis along the edges of the the forest by the walking paths. It can be found through out the state, growing in clear cut areas, old fields and flood plains. This time of year, the fruits are turning red and ripening, and the open up and drop out hard, black, inedible seeds leaving the ‘peppercorns’ to harvest for culinary adventures. The leaves are also fragrant and flavorful, but I find them at their best in early summer and love to add them to a gin and tonic or simmer in a coconut curry.

Northern Prickly Ash is sometimes called ‘toothache’ tree, as the native people would find it helpful to soothe the pain of a toothache. Western herbalists call upon the warming, stimulating properties in prickly ash to treat a variety of ailments, including arthritis, digestive problems and poor circulation to name a few. I have found it helpful for cold extremities in the winter as it helps increase circulation and is even effective to help relieve Renaud’s syndrome.

Some gardeners may find a spreading thicket of prickly ash to be undesirable but one of the silver linings of this fascinating prickly plant is that is it the favorite food source for the giant swallowtail butterfly. When we are tempted to rip out plants that we decide we don’t like without knowing much about them, we can miss an opportunity to learn more about nature and the relationships between plants, insects, birds, animals and ourselves. There is always so much more to learn! One of my favorite resources for identifying plants and trees that grow in my area is the Minnesota Wildflowers site. And if you want to learn more about wild edible plants check out our friend Alan Bergo's website at

I love to play with the intriguing flavor of the leaves and berries of Zanthoxylum and have developed a few recipes over the years to share with you and would love to know how you like to collaborate with them in your kitchen. Here are some of my favorites…..

Roast the spices together in a cast iron skillet until fragrant before grinding into a powder

Prickly Ash 5-Spice

Five spice powder is a traditional Chinese spice blend used for braised meats and in stews. It is said that this blend is a great way to balance the yin and the yang energies. I love to use it on roasted vegetables, drink syrups, roasted nuts and even in an Asian-inspired pot roast.

1 tablespoon prickly ash berries, dried

6 whole star anise

6 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1 Tablespoon fennel seeds

Toast the spices in a dry cast iron skillet until fragrant and allow to cool. Once cool, grind in a spice grinder until finely ground. Sift out any large chunks and re-grind if needed. Store in an airtight container and use within 2 months.

Infuse oil with the zesty flavor of prickly ash berries, red chili flakes, star anise, cinnamon and sesame seeds

ZZZZZZanthoxylum Chili Oil

Drizzle this curiously zingy and tingly oil on soups, salads, stir fry, spring rolls or add to marinades and salad dressings. It is pretty intense in flavor and a little goes a long way. I like to make a large batch and bottle it up for gifting.

Makes 16 ounces

2 Tablespoons prickly ash berries, dried

¼ cup sesame seeds

¼ cup crushed red chili flakes

1 cinnamon stick

2 whole star anise

1 bay leaf

1 cup sunflower oil

In a heavy cast iron skillet, roast the prickly ash berries with the sesame seeds, stirring over medium heat until fragrant and the seeds are lightly golden brown. Transfer to a heat proof metal or pyrex bowl and add the chili flakes, cinnamon stick, star anise and bay leaf to the bowl. Heat the sunflower oil to 325 degrees F and pour over the bowl of spices. Allow to sizzle and once the sizzling has stopped, cover the dish with a plate and allow to sit at least 4 hours or overnight. Strain the oil through a fine strainer and compost the spices. Store in well-sealed bottles and keep refrigerated for a longer shelf life.

Secret sizzle in this tasty cocktail!

(Kiss my) Prickly Ash Minne- Mule cocktail

After smelling the intoxicating aroma in freshly ground prickly ash 5 Spice, I was inspired to try it in a cocktail. Infusing a honey and ginger syrup with the spice adds an interesting option to a classic ‘Moscow Mule’. Make this a ‘mocktail’ by skipping the booze and adding an extra squeeze of lime juice and fizzy water.

Makes about 1 ¼ cup syrup, enough for 4 cocktails

For the syrup

8 ounces water

1 teaspoon Prickly ash 5 spice powder

2-3 Tablespoons fresh ginger root, grated

4 Tablespoons honey

For the cocktail

4 rocks glasses, filled with ice

4 ounces Vodka

1 lime, cut into 8 wedges

8 ounces 5-spice cocktail syrup

Fizzy water to fill glasses

Make the syrup by simmering the 5 spice and ginger root in the water. Remove from heat and stir in the honey. Allow to steep and cool to room temperature and strain. Chill until cocktail hour. The syrup can be made in advance and should keep at least 1 week refrigerated.

Divide the syrup into the ice filled glasses. Squeeze a 2 lime wedges into each glass and leave one wedge in the glass. Fill the glasses with fizzy water and enjoy!

This warming spice blend will keep you cozy from head to toe!

Betsy’s Spiced Cider Spice Blend

Prickly ash berries are kind of like a ‘citrus bomb’ and so I like to use them in recipes that might traditionally incorporate orange or lemon zest. The quality of helping blood circulation to warm cold extremities also makes this a nice spice blend to cozy up with in the winter months.

1 cinnamon stick

12 cardamom pods

1 Tablespoon prickly ash berries

1 star anise

6 whole cloves

1 teaspoon allspice

2 Tablespoons dried elderberries

4 cups apple cider

Crush the whole spices by giving them a good ‘whack’ with a heavy skillet. Add to a saucepan with the elderberries and cider and simmer for 20 minutes and serve warm. Make a larger batch of the spice blend and store in jars for gifting.

Betsy’s Elderberry Hibiscus NA Sangria

Keep your friends and family healthy with this antioxidant rich drink. It’s not overly sweet, but is full of flavor and immune boosting fruits, flowers and spices. If you want to make it a little boozy, add a little dash of elderberry liqueur, Crème Cassis or brandy.

1 gallon water

½ cup dried elderberries

½ cup dried rose hips

1 cup dried hibiscus flowers

2 Ceylon cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces

6 whole cloves

1 Tablespoon prickly ash berries (ok to skip if you don’t have them)

1 cup honey

1 Granny Smith apple, cored and diced small

1 pear, cored and diced small

1 lime, sliced very thin

1 lemon, sliced very thin

1 orange, sliced very thin


32 ounces fizzy water

Bring the water with the elderberries, rose hips, hibiscus and spices to a simmer in a large stock pot. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Allow to cool in the pan, covered until it is room temperature and stir in the honey. Strain the liquid from the elderberry mixture through a fine strainer once cooled. Place the diced and sliced fruits into a large serving container or in large canning jars and pour the strained elderberry mixture over them. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. To serve, fill glasses with ice and fill half way with the elderberry tea and top off with fizzy water. Spoon in some of the fruits, if you like, and serve.

Not just for Szechuan cooking...the sweet side of Zanthoxylum in shortbread cookies

Black Walnut and Prickly Ash Shortbread

Buttery shortbread is a simple and elegant way to enjoy these gorgeously aromatic flavors. If you can’t find any prickly ash berries, sub finely grated orange or lemon zest. . This simply shortbread recipe is a wonderful way to let their flavor shine. Add some ground prickly ash berries, a northern version of Szchechuan peppercorns and also a member of the citrus family, to add another subtle aroma that pairs great with that of the walnuts.

½ cup shelled black walnuts

½ cup buckwheat flour

½ teaspoon ground roasted prickly ash seeds

¾ teaspoon sea salt

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ½” chunks

Heat oven to 325 degrees and roast the nuts for 8-10 minutes until fragrant. Remove from pan and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Add the buckwheat flour, ground prickly ash, salt and cooled black walnuts to the bowl of the food processor and pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Pulse in the all-purpose flour and add the butter and pulse until it forms fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until it begins to come together as a dough, being cautious not to over process.

Press the dough into an ungreased 9”x13” pan in an even layer. Prick the dough with a fork all over the surface of the dough. Bake for about 35-40 minutes, until golden brown on the edges and fragrant. Allow the shortbread to cool on a baking rack for at least 30 minutes before cutting into squares, sticks or diamond shapes. Store the shortbread in an airtight container. It will keep at least a week at room temperature, and will freeze beautifully to enjoy later.

Warming Spiced Apple and Elderberry Butter

Make a big batch of this to have on hand to keep yourself healthy through the winter and give a few jars as gifts as well. It is perfect spread on toast, stirred into a bowl of oatmeal or yoghurt or just eat a tablespoon of it each day, as you feel you need it.

12 tart cooking apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled and cored and quartered (or can sub pears for the apples)

½ cup apple cider vinegar

½ cup water

1 teaspoon roasted and ground prickly ash berries

¼ cup fresh elderberries or 2 Tablespoons powdered dried elderberries

1 Tablespoon Ceylon cinnamon

2 Tablespoons fresh ginger root, minced

½ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

½ cup brown sugar

2-3 star anise

Place all ingredients together in a heavy pot with a well-fitting lid, or use an Instant Pot or Pressure cooker or slow cooker. If you are using an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, cook on high pressure for 10-15 minutes and release pressure, mash apples until smooth and then slow cook with the lid removed until thickened, about 1 hour. If you are using a pot, simmer together for 30 minutes with the cover on, remove the cover and mash and simmer, uncovered for 1 hour. In a slow cooker, cook on medium heat 2-3 hours, until apples are soft. Mash and cook another hour with lid slightly cracked to allow excess moisture to escape. Prepare 8-10 (4-ounce) canning jars by boiling 5 minutes in a hot water bath. Remove the star anise from the pot. Divide the hot apple butter equally into jars and place lids, loosely tightened. Allow jars to cool for an hour and tighten lids and let them cool completely before storing in a cool dark place.

Common sense statement:

As with any new food, you never know if you may have a sensitivity or allergy to it, so start small and see how your body reacts to it. Also, if a foraged food in unfamiliar to you, please use at least a couple guide books and websites featuring wild edible plants in your location to help you identify them, or better yet, learn face to face with an experienced forager. I share these recipes and information based on what I have learned thus far and know that learning is a lifetime process, and I will be the first to say I definitely don't have all the answers. I am just making my humble offering of ideas and recipes that I have made and enjoyed at home.

Please do reach out and let me know your discoveries with wild foods. We all so have much to learn from each other and it makes things so much more rich when we share our thoughts and ideas and dreams in community.

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