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The Rowan a Charming Name and a Charming Tree

Updated on August 6, 2015

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

The rowan tree Sorbus acuparia is a graceful relatively small tree often misleadingly called the mountain ash. For the rowan , being a member of the Rosaceae is in no way related to the ash tree which is a member of the olive family, Oleaceae. The name mountainash probably derives from the fact that this species my be found high on mountains and that its foliage is superficially similar to that of the commonash tree. However, seeing them side by side seems to dismiss his for there are obvious differences, as you can see from the photographs below.

What beauty this tree portrays when, just after the leaves unfurl, the flowers begin t form, before bursting into bloom towards the end of May. Because it is a relatively small tree it finds favour with gardeners who are privileged enough to have space for such a beautiful tree. Many cultivated species have berries of differing colours to the wild species, for instance there are pink, yellow and even white coloured berries that adorn the tree until well into winter.

The name Rowan is thought to derive from an old Norse word meaning "a charm" it alludes to the tree being considered a friend of man, warding off evilspirits and goblins that prevailed in the minds of our ancestors. The Celts called the tree the "wizard's " tree and associated it with the spirit of life, beauty , creativity and strength. They referred to the rowan as the "Lady of the mountain", alludingto it being one of the last trees to be found on the "tree line" on mountains, indeed they may be encountered up to the height of 3,000 feet.

Over the passage of time the rowan as acquired many country titles which include the quick beam, the wichen tree and the sorb apple. They were often planted near to houses and branches were suspended over door frames to keep out evil spirits. In a similar vein they were also planted in churchyards to stop evil spirits from disturbing the good souls of the departed. The Vikings carried rowan woo as a lucky charm when entering upon long sea voyages.

Leaf Comparisons

the rowan leaf on the left and the leaf of the common ash on the right,photograph by D.A.L.
the rowan leaf on the left and the leaf of the common ash on the right,photograph by D.A.L.
COMMON ASH-foliage has more oval leaflets much more loosely arranged along the stem. Photograph by D.A.L.
COMMON ASH-foliage has more oval leaflets much more loosely arranged along the stem. Photograph by D.A.L.
The leaf of rowan is much more compact. Photograph by D.A.L.
The leaf of rowan is much more compact. Photograph by D.A.L.

Basic Biology of the Rowan Tree.

Sorbus acuparia is a small tree attaining the height of 4-12 metres. It is a very accommodating tree letting light through the canopy allowing ground flora to flourish beneath it and in the heat of summer affording them a light shade. The bark is f a pale grey colour and smooth.

As stated the foliage has a superficial resemblance to that of the common ash, both are composed of leaflets but as you can see from the photographs above there are many differences to observe. the rowan normally has around seven pairs of leaflets while the common ash is usually composed of just four pairs. The leaflets of the rowan are more compact with sharper teeth along their margins. The more oval -shaped leaflets of the ah are more loosely arranged, and tend to have a much sharper point at the tips.

The "whole " leaf of the rowan are arranged alternately on the branches and twigs of the tree. The leaflets are 2-6cm long.he under surface is of a grey-green colour.The leaf stalk is furrowed and hairy.

Flowers-- are white about 1cm across an have five petals. These individual flowers grow in large clusters about 15cm wide. Each tree produces a plethora of clusters. Beneath the flower the sepals are triangular with glandular hairs. The petals are oval or round and 4-5mm long.

The flowers are succeeded by the berries {known as pommes}. They are small and rounded 9-10mm broad and usually containing three seeds. They are a greenish yellow at first the becoming the orange-red colour that so many of us are familiar with. They are great source of food for birds , particularly those of the thrush family, including the winter visiting Redwing and Fieldfare. The berries remain on the tree long after the leaves have fallen. The species name acuparia,pronounced ow-kew-pah-ree-a, loosely translated means bird catcher and alludes to the berries attracting birds.

Rowan in bloom

The rowan tree in bloom is an impressive tree. Photograph by D.A.L.
The rowan tree in bloom is an impressive tree. Photograph by D.A.L.

Rowan Wood and Its Uses.

The wood of the rowan is strong and flexible of a yellow-grey colour. It was utilised to make cartwheels, hoops for barrels, watermill fixtures,and items such as plough pins. In the north the rowan was used to create long bows while in the south the ash and yew were favoured for such weapons. It was also greatly employed to make small carvings in the same way as lime wood.

Medicinal and Culinary Uses

The berries which are often regarded as being poisonous are in fact edible,however, my personal opinion is that they are bitter an do not taste very nice. When fresh the berries contain parasorbic acid which may irritate the kidneys. Once they have been boiled or dried it changes to a non toxic sorbic acid and the taste greatly improves. They contain a high vitamin C content, along with tannins sugars and pectin. After being boiled the berries are a main ingredient of jellies, syrups and compotes regularly produced by country people in days gone by.

Rowan compote is still produced in England as an accompaniment to game dishes. The berries should be dried quickly so as to keep the colour. They are often used in conjunction with elderberries.

Eating a spoon of rowan jam a day is said to stimulate the appetite. The juice of the berries was employed as a gargle for sore throats. The dried berries were infused to make a health tea which was mildly laxative. The berries were also used to make tarts, jellies and a country wine. However some herbalists believe that the berries should be eaten with constraint even when they have been boiled or dried.

The bark was employed as a gargle against thrush.  All in all the rowan was a beneficial tree as a species that looks fine producing berries for birds during the winter, and food and medicine for our benefit. A charming tree to admire for its beauty alone.

A mature Rowan tree

photograph by D.A.L.
photograph by D.A.L.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Aaron Megquier, nice to meet you, thank you for your welcome and appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • Aaron Megquier profile image

      Aaron Megquier 

      7 years ago from Belfast, ME

      Wonderful hub! I am quite fond of the rowan tree as well, and named my daughter after it. I have a young rowan (planted, of course) growing on my lawn here in the northeastern US. We have two other species of native Sorbus (decora and americana) growing here as well. Thanks again for the great hub!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Thank you to everyone that have taken the time to comment on the THE ROWAN TREE A CHARMING NAME AND A CHARMING TREE, They are appreciated.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Sufidreamer, I can imagine you did eat Rowan jelly it was popular especially in north Lancashire. Thanks for reading.

    • Sufidreamer profile image


      8 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Lovely Hub about a beautiful tree. Like Izzy, I miss the Rowan tree - I love the history behind it, and I seem to remember eating the jelly many years ago.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      IzzyM nice to hear from you. Rowans are beautiful small trees that give a lot of pleasure throughout the seasons. Thank you reading and for leaving your appreciated comments.

      Darlene, the seeds are dispersed by birds which survive in their droppings, so the mother tree could be many miles away. They germinate readily where conditions are favourable and your tree is clearly at home with your pines and aspens. Thank you once again for reading and for leaving your welcome comments.

      BevsPaper, thank you too,for the visit. They are beautiful in bloom and when they are covered in the orangy red fruits which will stay on the tree well into the cold winter months. Glad I introduced you to the tree.

    • BevsPaper profile image


      8 years ago from Central Indiana

      Was unfamiliar with the Rowan tree until I read your article. How pretty it is when in bloom!

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      8 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      I have this tree growing in my yard, it was a mystery when it appeared about four years ago, and their are no other trees anywhere around me to figure out how it suddenly appeared. In it's relatively short life it now stands about six or seven feet tall. Strangely it is my favorite tree in my yard along with my Aspens and Pines. Thank you for this outstanding hub, high rates

    • IzzyM profile image


      8 years ago from UK

      I love rowan trees and always had one in my garden to keep the evil spirits away, but unfortunately it's just too hot and dry for them here in Spain. Great hub, Dal!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi Linda, thank you for visiting, in the U.K. it is a deciduous tree which closes down for the winter, but quickly responds to Spring. Thank you , also, for your appreciated comments.

    • profile image

      Linda Myshrall 

      8 years ago

      Hi DAL, It certainly is gorgeous--especially when it's in bloom! I love the lacy leaf pattern and the size looks perfect for a small lot. Does it require a winter freeze in order to thrive? The photos are perfect, Linda


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