The Rowan: The story of the demon, the witch and the walking stick

The Rowan (Sorbus Aucuparia) is widely distributed around the British Isles and today is equally at home in suburban parks or gardens and the Highlands of Scotland. This tree is also known by several folk names, such as the mountain ash and, in Scotland, the Gaelic name of caorunn. The rowan is quite a graceful tree that sports cream flower heads in May or June, followed by clusters of bright red berries in the autumn. Not only do these berries look attractive they also provide a valuable source of food for birds and are rich in vitamin C. However, it is not only the birds that enjoy the berries. In Scotland rowan berry jelly is traditionally eaten with birds (of the feathered variety)! Rowan berries have also been on the list of ingredients for various Celtic drinks over the centuries, including Scottish wine and spirit, Welsh ale and as flavouring in Irish mead. Historically these versatile fruits have also been used, with the bark, to dye garments and the bark on its own for tanning leather. The wood too was prized for its strength and durability, making it particularly suitable for walking sticks and tool handles and it was often used in the construction of spinning wheels.

In addition to the Rowan's many practical uses, it appears in Greek mythology in connection with fighting off demons and in folklore it was said to guard against witchcraft. With regard to folklore, it is believed that the berries were the key to it all, as red was said to offer the best protection, and the five pointed star at the opposite end to the stalk to resemble a pentagram, which is an ancient protective symbol. It was thought that trees planted close to dwellings afforded protection to the inhabitants and crosses fashioned from twigs, bound with red thread and either sewn into the linings of coats or carried in pockets provided personal security. A branch placed in a bed was thought to ward off evil spirits, but must have proved a slightly strange and uncomfortable sleeping companion. In Wales the rowan was considered to be sacred and was planted in churchyards to ward off evil spirits, with coffins often being rested under them on the way to the funeral.

So all in all the humble Rowan has played its part in folklore. The next time you pass one you might just want to break off a couple of twigs, but whatever you do, don't use a knife to cut the wood…

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