The Rowan Tree
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).