Wherever I walk I see red mountain ash berries glowing in the autumn sun. Its Latin name is Sorbus aucuparia. ‘Sorbus’ is just the Latin name for mountain ash and ‘aucuparia’ means ‘to catch birds’ (and yes, if you see the way birds flock to eat the berries, you can see it would be easy to catch them). Its English names indicate that its leaves are split into leaflets like ash tree leaves and it will grow high on a mountainside where few other trees are able to grow. In northern England and Scotland it is called ‘Rowan’ because the sacred writing of the Norse was the rune, carved into the wood of this tree.
Within Celtic mythology this was a very powerful tree, with the ability to ward off all kinds of evil, and for this reason it was considered very bad luck to cut one down. Throughout the British Isles until recent times rowans were planted near the house, the barn and the crops in the fields to ward off all evil. Originally this evil was expected to be from witches, the evil eye and sorcery, but with the advance of science the rowan’s good influence became more specifically against crop failure, and illness of people or cattle.
Rowan had power too, over the evils of the deep – a block of rowan wood was nailed to a ship’s keel or a branch fastened to a halyard protested against shipwreck.
So powerful was rowan that it was planted in churchyards to make sure the dead did not arise until the Day of Judgement. In Scotland a hoop was made of rowan twigs and sheep and lambs driven through it to ensure their health and protection. Inside the house butter and cream were churned with a rowan paddle to be sure that evil spirits would not sour or steal it.
One of the reasons rowan was believed to have such power was the tiny pentagram, or five-pointed star (actually the remains of the flower) on each berry. Like many pagan symbols it was adapted by Christianity (if you can’t beat them, join them) and it was said that the Cross of Christ might have been made of rowan, and small crosses of rowan became the family protectors.
More practically, this is a great tree for attracting birds – they flock to the berries. You can make a tangy jelly to serve with game or chicken from them and use the wood to make bows or walking canes.
This tree is not native to North America but it has spread widely, thanks to the birds. You’ll find it has frothy heads of white flowers in spring and will make an attractive (and protective – you can never be too careful) addition to a garden.