The Rowan Tree

Evergreen - - Summer 2018 -

Have you ever won­dered why so many old houses have a rowan tree or, to give it its proper ti­tle, “sor­bus au­cu­paria”, grow­ing in their gar­dens? I have two or three and there has very likely been one grow­ing there since the time my grand­fa­ther built the house over a cen­tury ago.

The rowan, also known as moun­tain ash, is a hardy tree and can hap­pily grow in in­hos­pitable parts of the High­lands to as much as 3,000 feet above sea level. It has at­trac­tive flow­ers through­out the sum­mer and be­comes es­pe­cially colour­ful in au­tumn when cov­ered in a mass of bril­liant red berries. How fair wert thou in sim­mer time, Wi’ a’ thy clus­ters white, How rich and gay thy au­tumn dress, Wi’ berries red and bright.

With all these qual­i­ties, to­gether with the berries’ great at­trac­tion to the birds, is it any won­der then, that this lit­tle tree has found it­self a prom­i­nent place in our gar­dens?

These, how­ever, are not the sole ben­e­fits of rowan and only partly ex­plain its pop­u­lar­ity. To our an­ces­tors, a rowan may have been planted close to a gate or house en­trance for an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent

rea­son and for a qual­ity hid­den to the eye. For thou­sands of years, ex­tend­ing even to Greek mythol­ogy, rowan has been re­garded as a mag­i­cal tree and a tree pos­sess­ing apotropaic pow­ers ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion against evil spirits. Hence, you’ll also com­monly find it along with yew in many old grave­yards. Its pro­tec­tion was par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive against the pow­ers of witches. As King James I ad­vised:

At Beltane, women would wear neck­laces made from sprigs of rowan tied with thread dyed with the blood red berries. Twigs would also be tied into crosses or col­lars to be placed above the byre door or hung around the necks of cat­tle and horses. It was even be­lieved the dead could gain in­valu­able pro­tec­tion by be­ing buried in rowan coffins. We shouldn’t for­get though, that the rowan tree is a favourite of the fairies and woe be­tide any­one harm­ing or cut­ting one down.

The 16th and 17th cen­turies were par­tic­u­larly su­per­sti­tious times when the fear of witches verged on hys­te­ria. Only a few hun­dred yards from home, in 1662, a coven of 13 witches —

The bright berries of a rowan tree, other­wise known as the moun­tain ash.

Rowan- tree and red thread, Will put the witches to thair speed. Rowan berries ( above) and the flow­ers ( be­low).

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