The rowan has something to offer for most of the year. Its foliage emerges in spring, splashes of white blossom appear in summer, and in autumn and early winter, the tree is decorated with dense hanging bunches of bright red berries.
Rowan, also known as mountain ash, is a deciduous tree that grows to 20m (65ft) in woods, scrubland, and mountains. It produces white flowers with five flowers in May and fruit, small berries from September onwards.
The rowan is a native tree most usually associated with high country. It is also known as mountain ash but is unrelated to the common ash and is different apart from its compound leaves.
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Rowan grows in high-altitude locations. In the British Isles, rowan grows at altitudes up to 950m (3115ft), higher than other native broadleaved trees.
Rowan grows throughout Europe in some of the most inhospitable areas, and in the U.S., it has become naturalized.
Rowan can also be found throughout the lowlands, favoring sandy or gravelly soils, which tend to be acidic. On bleak mountainsides, it forms a stunted, windswept tree a few meters tall, but on the more sheltered lowlands, it can reach up to 20m (65ft).
Because its berries are devoured by birds and the seeds widely dispersed in their droppings, the rowan appears in various habitats, including woodland, scrubby hillsides, heaths, and hedgerows.
Not surprisingly, the rowan’s versatile form has made it a firm favorite with landscape gardeners. It is widely planted in parks and gardens, on motorway embankments, and golf courses, as it can live around urban areas.
Foresters have also used it as a nurse tree in plantations of hardwoods, as the light shade of its foliage promotes the growth of the hardwood saplings. Once these grow larger than the rowan, however, the rowan may die as it is too dark underneath the canopy to survive.
The slim trunk is covered with smooth slate-grey bark marked with shallow horizontal scars. The limbs tend to grow upwards to form a rather loosely branched crown that allows plenty of light and does not suppress plant growth beneath.
The twigs are pale brown, sometimes tinged with violet. The buds are 10-15cm (4-6in) long, and the brownish-purple bud scales are fringed with fine silky white hairs.
The foliage opens towards the end of April. The leaf stalks, 10-25cm (4-10 in) long, have five to eight opposite pairs of leaflets and are tipped with a single terminal leaflet. Each leaflet has serrated edges and is bright green on its upper surface but paler underneath.
The leaves change to yellow and orange in autumn before falling in early autumn. The rowan blossoms in May or June, producing inflorescences made up of many tiny flowers, each with five white petals.
Although the individual flowers are very small because they are tightly packed together, they are noticeable and attract a variety of prospective pollinators, including flies, beetles, and bees.
After fertilization, the flowers are succeeded by green berries. These ripen by September and provide bright, shiny fruits varying in color from orange to scarlet. Generally, this is short-lived because birds find the fruits irresistible and strip the trees of the nutrient-rich berries.
Blackbirds, thrushes, fieldfares, and redwings all feed on the rowan. Waxwings are also particularly fond of rowan berries. Seeds that have been sown by birds germinate the following spring, whereas they typically remain dormant in the soil for 18 months.
This may be due to the abrasive action of the bird’s gut, which acts upon the seed coat, allowing moisture to enter, so germination occurs sooner than usual when the berries fall to the ground.
The rowan’s Latin name, Sorbus aucuparia, means ‘fowler’s service tree,’ which refers to the past use of the berries as bait by bird trappers. In some communities, the berries are known as ‘hen-drunks’, because chickens have been seen to become intoxicated after gorging themselves on the fallen fruits. The berries have also been used to produce alcoholic drinks.
The fruits have a harsh, sour taste but are still used today to make jelly that goes well with game dishes such as hare and venison.
Folklore and Superstitions
The rowan is special in folklore, especially in northern regions. Many of the superstitions connected with it originated from ancient Nordic visitors from Scandinavia. The word rowan is derived from the Norse runa, meaning a charm, due to the tree’s reputation for warding off evil.
In Scotland and Ireland, the rowan’s magical powers were greatly revered. A branch was always nailed to cattle sheds to protect the animals from witchcraft and sorcery. Highland crofters would plant a rowan tree outside their homes to keep witches at bay.
In Wales, Ireland, and some northern counties of England, the rowan was often planted in churchyards. This was to keep the dead in their graves and prevent ghosts from appearing.