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Pyracantha (firethorn) jelly

In the SF area there are pyracantha shrubs everywhere. They bear little red berries in the fall and winter. The birds gorge themselves on them, but as a kid I was always told they were poisonous to humans. It turns out that a) they are not poisonous, although b) they are not very good raw. It also turns out that c) they are of several related species that are d) all members of the apple subfamily of the gigantic rose family. This means that e) the "berries" are in fact pomes (think of them as blueberry-sized crabapples). When I nerved myself to taste one, it did indeed taste like a little, mushy apple. And when I gave my mother a taste of my first experimental jelly without telling her what it was, she said "Mmmm....is it....pear?" But I am getting ahead of myself.

A few weeks ago I came across a recipe for pyracantha (aka "firethorn") jelly and decided I wanted to try making it. First, I wrote to a botanist friend to find out whether there are any local lookalike species; it turns out there are two: cotoneaster (pronounced "co-to-nee-ASS-ter," not "cotton easter") and toyon (aka "California holly"). Toyon is a New World native and the others are Old World transplants. (Another related group of plants are the hawthorns, which include both Old and New World species, but we don't see them around here. All I can say is that it must be a very adaptable basic plant design. I have attached pictures of various plants here, so you can see how much alike they look.) Anyway, with my friend's help I figured out how to tell them apart. I couldn't find any suggestion that cotoneaster is good for cooking, and Toyon is mildly toxic raw, though edible if cooked or dried, so I wanted to be sure I was getting pyracantha. I found a couple of likely bushes near the parking lot of a local community college and harvested the berries, all the while prepared to educate anybody who asked "what are you doing -- don't you know those are poisonous?" Nobody asked. Pyracantha pomes grow in giant clusters, so it took me about 10 minutes to gather half a gallon.

First, I made a small sample of jelly to see if it was worth making more. The taste is subtle, but pleasant, so I decided to proceed. One of the two recipes I used was originally for hawthorn berry jelly. It contains just the pomes, water, and sugar -- no added pectin:

Pyracantha pomes
Water
Sugar
1/4 tsp butter, optional (to reduce foaming)

Wash and pick over pomes, then combine with water in a saucepan. (Ratio: 4 cups pomes to 3 cups water.) Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Be warned: it smells rather nasty while cooking, not sure why. Cool slightly, then strain, reserving the juice. I used a fine-mesh sieve, then strained again using a coffee filter; you could also use a jelly bag. Discard the pomes. Combine juice with sugar (Ratio: 4 cups juice to 3 cups sugar) and stir to dissolve. Add butter, if using. Bring to a boil, then continue to boil until it reaches a temperature of 221 degrees fahrenheit and/or it reaches a jelling point according to your favorite method of testing. Skim foam, pour into sterilized jars, and process in water bath canner.

The second recipe is based on one I found that was specifically for pyracantha berries:

3 cups of pyracantha juice (made using same method as in previous recipe)
juice of one pink-fleshed grapefruit
juice of one lemon
1 package (1.75 oz) powdered pectin
1/4 tsp salt
4.5 cups sugar

Combine juices; this should equal about 3.5 cups. Take one cup of combined juices and mix with pectin until dissolved. Add to remaining juices in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add salt and sugar and boil, while stirring, for 3 minutes. Skim foam, pour into sterilized jars, and process in water bath canner.

IMO, the second recipe, though a gorgeous coral color, isn't very interesting; the citrus overwhelms the delicate pyracantha flavor. I'm not sure if I'll make them again -- they seem more notable as a novelty than anything else.

Images, in order:

Pyracantha
Cotoneaster
Toyon
Hawthorn

 
 
 
 
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  1. How enterprising of you! Were you scratched to death collecting those berries? I have a pyracanthus in my garden and it's got some vicious thorns on it. I think I'll leave the berries for the birds though.

    1 Reply
    1. re: greedygirl

      Well, now that you mention it, I do have a couple of scratches. I forgot to wear long sleeves.

    2. My parents have a huge pyracantha trained over their side door... I will have to check this out when I visit for Christmas, assuming the birds haven't picked it clean already.

      1. Very pioneering, I bet you could sell the stuff at the local farmers market as firethorn jelly maybe mix in some red chiles for more fire and make a tidy profit.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Sally599

          We had hawthorns at our Naval housing on Hunter's Point in San Francisco back in the sixties. Since then, I've had hawthorn extract that an herbalist friend gave me when I was having a health problem some years back. I've forgotten what it was for. It was quite delicious, in fact. The reason I bring it up is that some of these plants have medicinal properties. So do check a good herbal before making jams with rare and unusual fruit. By the way, pyracantha often ferments on the plant. I've seen many a blue jay acting drunk from gorging on them.
          Did you do a pectin test with the pyracantha juice? Since they are so closely allied to apples, I wonder if they might have enough pectin in them to gel without adding commercial pectin.

          1. re: Father Kitchen

            I'm not sure how to do a pectin test, but my first small batch was made with no added pectin and it ended up about as firm as honey after a couple of hours refrigeration. I did a second, larger batch with no pectin and I think that one came out firmer. I do prefer not to add pectin if possible.

            Years ago, my grandmother wrote a poem about birds getting drunk on fermented berries. I've forgotten all of it except for the last couplet: "Pyracantha, when fermented/Makes the birdies quite demented."

            1. re: jlafler

              There are several ways to test for pectin, including cooking a minibatch. But the most common way is to mix in a glass about a tablespoon each of the cooled fruit juice and rubbing alcohol. If there is enough pectin in the juice, it will form a single blob of gel. If there is not enough, it will form separate little beads of gel.

              1. re: Father Kitchen

                That is excellent information! Thanks!

                1. re: jlafler

                  You are welcome. Thank you for giving us the pyracantha jelly information.

                  1. re: Father Kitchen

                    Sometimes, knowing what things are NOT worth the trouble to make is as useful as knowing what IS worth the trouble to make. I remember fussing over a pot of tomato bisque for an hour or so, tasting it, and thinking: "Great, I've spent 10 bucks and an hour of my time to recreate Campbell's Tomato Soup."

                    1. re: zamorski

                      I used a slightly different recipe, but it sets almost instantly. Easy, but watch the frothing. And it really MUST be stirred all the time..

                      PYRACANTHA JELLY

                      7 cups pyracantha berries
                      5 cups water
                      1/2 cup lemon juice
                      7 cups sugar
                      1 bottle liquid pectin
                      Melted paraffin

                      Place 7 cups washed pyracantha berries in a very large pan with 5 cups of water. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Strain through a cloth. Measure 3 cups berry juice, 1/2 cup lemon juice and 7 cups sugar into a very large pan. Over high heat, bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Immediately stir in one bottle liquid pectin, bring to a full rolling boil and boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, skim off foam and pour into sterilized glasses. Cover with 1/8 inch melted paraffin. Prepared berry juice may be refrigerated or frozen prior to making jelly.

                      I used dome seal lids. Made about 6 pounds of jelly. It is pretty, a light orange colour.

        2. Looking at the Friends of the Urban Forest site, it would appear that the trees that are all over here, at least in my neighborhood (Noe Valley) are Washington Thorns (http://www.fuf.net/resources/gallery/...), decidedly part of the hawthorn family. Did your botanist friend remark on that at all? Also, as far as I can read, all haws are edible, at least cooked. Do you know any different?

          1 Reply
          1. re: seantimberlake

            It's been long enough ago that I don't remember the details of what my botanist friend said. The Sibley Guide to Trees says there is a huge number of hawthorn species and that they hybridize easily. Most species don't occur naturally in the western U.S., but they are cultivated all over. According to everything I have read, all haws are edible, but I'm not all that confident about my sources (e.g. Wikipedia).

          2. My big wild edible discovery this year was Autumn Olives. Not an olive at all, it's a small red berry with silver flecked skin and a single seed that raw, is much too tart for straight eating but yields a jam or fruit leather that, for lack of a better description, tastes like a Sweet-Tart! The state planted them years ago thinking that they'd be great for erosion control and bird habitat/food but the plant turned out to be invasive and it grows all over. I ran into the "they're poisonous!" statement too but obviously, they're not. Autumn Olive has been one of my most requested jams this year. Now, with your inspiration, I'm going to hunt down pyracantha and add Firethorn Jelly to my list of wild comestibles!

            1. I make pyracantha jelly yearly and love the taste as do my husband and anyone to whom I have given a jar. Surprised that you did not love what we consider a uniquely, delicious jelly.