ROWAN

© Anna Franklin

This article may not be reproduced or quoted without permission.

It is an extract from my Complete Pagan Herbal.

BOTANICAL NAME: Sorbus aucuparia

Synonyms: Pyrus aucuparia

 BOTANICAL FAMILY: Rosacea

 COMMON NAMES: Alisier [Old French], Cares (Cornwall & Devon), Caorann (Scottish Gaelic), Caorthann (Irish), Cerdinen (Welsh), Cock-drunks, Delight of the Eye[1], Dragon Tree, Druid’s Tree, Fowlers' Service Tree, Hen-drunk, Kerdhinenn (Cornish), Keirn (Manx, Lady of the Mountains, Luisiu (Old Celtic for ‘flame’), Mountain Ash, Quickbane, Quickbeam [beam is Anglo-Saxon for a tree], Quicken Tree, Quicken, Quickenbeam, Ran Tree, Roan Tree, Roden-quicken, Roden-quicken-royan, Round Tree, Round Wood, Rown-tree [Scotland, where the berries are called ‘rowns’, Royne Tree, Rudha-an (Gaelic ‘red one’], Rune Tree, Sorb Apple, The Witch Tree, Thor's Helper, Thor’s Tree, Tree of Life, Wichen Tree, Whispering Tree, Whitty, Wicken Tree, Wicken-tree, Wiggan Tree, Wiggin, Wiggy, Wiky, Witch Wood, Witchbane, Witchen Tree. Witchen, Witchwand,

 WARNING: Eating the raw berries can cause stomach upsets. One of the chemical constituents of the seeds can become poisonous when in contact with water, though this is destroyed by cooking.

NATURAL HISTORY:

The rowan is a member of the Rosacea - or rose – family, which is characterised by its pomme fruits. The rowan, white beam and service trees form a sub-genus known as Sorbus, all having small white flowers arranged in clusters. 

Rowans are natuve to Europe, including Britain, and the western portions of Asia, and grow across the northern hemisphere. The rowan is usually seen as a solitary specimen throughout woodlands or scattered in rocky and mountainous regions. For this reason, and because of a similarity of the leaves, it is sometimes called the mountain ash, though is not related to the true ashes [Fraxinus sp.].

Rowan is a deciduous tree and may grow to around 50 ft, though it rarely exceeds 20 ft. The tree can live up to two-hundred years. The trunk is greyish and smooth with dark raised dots scattered across it. The branches are typically upward-pointing and terminate in ovoid, purplish buds which are often covered in grey hairs. The new leaves appearing in April are pinnate, six or eight inches in length with a terminal leaflet and thirteen to seventeen opposing pairs.  Each leaflet is from one to two inches in length, with a coarsely-toothed margin and an acute point. The underside is paler. When they decay in autumn, they become yellow or occasionally red.

The short-stalked small white flowers appear in May and June. They are arranged in flat clusters around six inches across. They fall in June or July and are followed by berries which quickly mature from green to full scarlet in August-September.  The flesh of the fruit is a bright orange-yellow. Seed production begins when the tree is about 15 years old, and in mild climates, rowan will fruit each year.

Rowan berries provide a favourite food for wild birds. The flowers attract a wide range of pollinating insects including beetles, flies, moths, wasps and bees. Rowan supports only a few leaf eating insects, but snails and all grazing animals find the tree very palatable. The foliage is highly attractive to browsing animals, and red deer will eat it in preference to most other tree species. Hares and rabbits eat the leaves, and deer also feed on the bark and stems.  

Varieties:

The American mountain ash, Sorbus Americana /Pyrus Americana, grows from Newfoundland south to northern Georgia and has many local names. It has similar properties to the bark of the European species and was formerly used as a tonic in fevers. Sorbus decora grows in the east and the Sitka mountain ash [Sorbus sitchensis] in the west.

Some of the Chinese species are popular with gardeners, such as the white-fruited rowan (Sorbus glabrescens) and Sargent's rowan (Sorbus sargentiana) for its large clusters of fruit. Other species include Sorbus cashmiriana, the Kashmir Rowan, Sorbus commixta, the Japanese Rowan, and Sorbus glabrescens or White-fruited Rowan.

Numerous cultivars of hybrid origin have also been selected for garden use. Beissneri has an orange bark, Fructu Luteo has orange berries and Aspleniifolia has deeply-lobed leaves. Hubei has white berries, while those of Vilmorin's Rowan start purple but ripen to pink-flushed white. Joseph Rock's Rowan has primrose-coloured berries. Fastigiata has an upright form with coarse, ascending branches, red fruit and dark green foliage. Xanthocarpa is notable for its yellow-orange fruit.  

Cultivation:

Rowans prefer light, acidic soil in full sun and flourish in northern and temperate regions, but will not grow in hot and sunny climates.

To plant the seed directly after collecting in August or September, remove the seed from the fruit, soak it for twenty-four hours in cold water. Rinse and pot the seeds in seed compost. Return to the fridge for ninety days. Take the pot out and keep watered in a warm place until germination occurs. The seedlings can be planted out in March. Alternatively, sow the seeds in late March in seedbeds or in trays of compost. Cover with a thin layer of grit, firm in and keep well watered. Germination should occur in two to three weeks. 

Gathering:

Collect the flowers in May and June and the berries when ripe at the end of August to September. As with sloes, gathering them after first frost (or putting in the freezer) reduces the bitterness.

 PRACTICAL USES:

Owing to its habit of quick growth, the tree is excellent for coppicing. Rowan makes fair firewood. The strong, flexible wood is also good for carving and turning and is used for making tool handles, poles, barrel hoops, walking sticks, small carved objects, plough-pins, pegs for tethering animals, cartwheels, tackle for watermills, rough basketwork, spinning wheels and spindles. If large enough it provides excellent planks and beams. In the Middle Ages, the Scottish Highlanders employed it to make longbows instead of the more usual yew and ash used by Lowlanders.  

The bark is strongly astringent and has been used for tanning and to make a black dye.

There is some controversy over the edibility of rowan berries. The seeds contain traces of prussic acid so they are best avoided in quantity. However, this is destroyed by cooking, and rowan berries have been used extensively as human food, and are rich in Vitamin C. The bitter taste can be improved by freezing for a while, or by an eight hour soak in a weak vinegar solution. The berries can be made into a jelly which is good served with savouries and game. They can also be used for making wine and a kind of cider. A strong spirit is distilled from them in north-eastern Europe. The Welsh used to brew ale from the berries, while the Irish used them to flavour mead. In times of hardship, the berries have been dried and ground into flour or used as a coffee substitute. At one time, Vitamin C was commercially extracted from the fruits. 

LORE:

The botanical name of the rowan, aucuparia, comes from the Latin auceps, meaning a fowler. This refers to the time honoured use of the berries as a lure by bird catchers; indeed, the tree is sometimes known as the Fowlers' Service Tree or Cock-drunks as the fruits were thought to intoxicate birds. The berries are so attractive to birds that the Roman poet Virgil spoke of the tree as attracting thrushes to any grove in which it grew. The genus name Sorbus means ‘stop’, possibly referring to the power of the rowan to prevent enchantment.

The common name ‘rowan’ is thought to be connected with the Gothic word run, i.e. ‘rune’, from the verb runner, ‘to know’, originating in the Sanskrit word for a magician,   Runa..  The Old Norse name for the tree was raun or rogn, related to the Old Norse word rauda 'red' (Islandic raudr, Lithuanian raûdas, Sanskrit rudhir). Linguists believe that this comes from a proto-Germanic word *raudnian meaning ‘getting red’ referring to the red foliage and red berries in the autumn. Others suggest the name may derive from the Celtic word 'ruidh' meaning 'red'. Alternatively, Kaledon Naddair [2] suggests the word means 'wheel', as spinning wheels and spindles were commonly made of rowan word cut between May Day and Midsummer.

The rowan’s old Gaelic name in the ancient Ogham script was Luis meaning ‘flame/blaze’, from the proto-Indo-European word *leuk meaning ‘to shine’. It was poetically described asLi sula ‘lustre of the eye’. The Auraincept interprets this as "delightful to the eye is luis, i.e. rowan, owing to the beauty of its berries".[3] The term occurs in various place names, such as Ardlui on Loch Lomond, Scotland. 

The more common Scots Gaelic name for the rowan is caorunn which crops up in Highland place names such as Beinn Chaorunn in Inverness-shire and Loch a'chaorun in Easter Ross. This indicates the rowan’s importance in bleak and lonely Highland areas, where other trees would not easily grow, and where the rowan is called the Lady of the Mountains. Rowan was also the clan badge of the Malcolms and McLachlans and the surnames Mac Cairthin and MacCarthy come from the old Gaelic word for rowan and literally mean "Son of the Rowan".

In Scotland at least, the rowan seems to have been the Tree of Life or Cosmic Axis tree. Such trees stood at the sacred centre [often also the geographical centre] of a place, connecting it to the realms of above and below, as well as the four directions. Kings were crowned there, and all important decisions made under the auspices of the tree, giving them the authority of the Otherworld as well as this one. Such a rowan tree stood on one of the Orkney islands. The fate of the island was bound up with it: if even one leaf was carried away from the island, the Orkneys would pass under the dominion of a foreign lord.

There were strong taboos in the Highlands against the use of any parts of the tree save the berries, except for ritual purposes. For example a Gaelic threshing tool made of rowan, called a buaitean, was used on grain meant for rituals and celebrations. According to Hugh Fife in his Warriors and Guardians: Native Highland Trees, the Rowan tree is one of the most sacred trees in Scottish folklore: “Scottish tradition does not allow the use of the tree’s timber, bark, leaves or flowers, nor the cutting of these, except for sacred purposes under special conditions.” [4]

Farmers would watch the development of rowan berries with interest, since an old saying has it that ‘Many rains, many rowans, many yawns’ meaning an abundance of the fruit predicted a poor crop in the cornfield, with little to do at harvest time. In Finland and Sweden, the number of berries on the trees was used as a predictor of the amount of snow during winter.

            In Iceland, there is a superstition that the rowan and the juniper, another mountain tree, are sworn enemies and any tree planted between them will be split by the adversity.

In the past, it was earnestly believed that evil witches had no power where there was rowan wood; after all, the berries are marked at the base with the sign of the pentagram, a sign of protection. In Scotland, it was put up in the house as a protective charm as ‘it cannot be removed by unholy figures.’ [5] In Yorkshire, the second of May was called ‘Witchwood Day’, when rowan pieces were taken and fixed over the door. According to one account, several were taken, one for the door, one for the cattle byre, one for the stable, one for personal use, one for the head of the bed and so on. They must be cut on St Helen’s Day, cut with a household knife from a tree the cutter had never seen before. It must be taken home by a different route from the one taken to get there. [6]

Rowan twigs were commonly used as defensive charms in Britain, usually in the form of an equal armed cross bound together with red thread:

"Rowan tree and red thread

Leave the witches all in dread"

In the Scottish Highlands, miniature versions were even sewn into clothing.  On the Isle of Man crosses made from rowan twigs, cut without the use of a knife, were worn by people and fastened to cattle, or hung inside over the lintel on May Eve each year.[7] It was believed that the power of the Rowan was particularly potent if the person making the charm had never seen the tree before cutting the wood.

Women sometimes wore necklaces of rowan berries, and in Wales rings were made of it for protection. [8] Elsewhere in Britain people wore sprigs of rowan to prevent enchantment. A cross carved from Rowan was sometimes placed above a child's cradle to protect it from bewitchment or from being stolen by faeries. Rowan boughs were fixed over doorways to protect the inhabitants of a dwelling. On Good Friday, thought of as a tricky time where evil spirits and witches were concerned, branches of rowan wood were brought into the house. The old song, The Laidley Worm alludes to its power:

Their spells were vain, the boys returned

To the queen in sorrowful mood;

Crying that ‘Witches have no power

Where there is rowan tree wood. [9]

In Eskdale, Yorkshire, rowan witchposts were once common. Standing between the chimney and door, they were carved with St Andrew’s crosses and were said to prevent witches from entering the cottage. It was once alleged that if a man who had been duly baptised touched a witch with a branch of rowan she was the one whom the devil carried off the next time he was in town.

            As well as witches, rowan also had the power to keep various evil spirits away. A branch of rowan in the bed prevented the occupant from being hag ridden [i.e. having nightmares caused by the Night Hag] while a piece placed on the pillow kept both evil spirits and witches away.  Rowan trees were planted near to the door of the house for protection, a custom carried by immigrants to the USA where rowans are frequently seen in those parts of North America settled by Scots and people the north of England, planted near the doors of the houses. Rowan, along with garlic and hawthorn, was one of the plants most commonly believed to repel vampires and, as in ancient Ireland, the favourite wood for staking a greedy ghost.

Animals were also protected with rowan, especially cattle. In Scotland, farmers placed boughs of rowan in their byres on the second day of May to protect the cows from evil, as they did in Germany. In Aberdeenshire, rowan crosses were placed over the cattle byre at the start of every summer and at Old Lammas [12th August], a ceremony which had to be carried out in secret and in silence.  [10]Small carved pieces of rowan wood were kept in the cow by for protection. [11] In Strathspey, cattle and sheep would be driven through rowan hoops every May Day and Halloween, morning and evening. [12] As late as the end of the nineteenth century, rowans trained into arches over the byre doors could be seen for the same purpose, while a rowan planted in the field stopped the cows being struck by lightening. [13] Cattle would be tethered on pegs of rowan, and they would be put into rowan collars at night. This collar would be passed three times round the chimney crook each time the cow visited the bull. [14] In parts of Britain, lambs were given rowan collars to guard them, and rowan was tied to cows’ tails with red thread on Midsummer’s Eve, and sprigs were plaited around their horns, as recorded by King James I in his Daemonologie. On Islay, on May Eve, tar was put on the horns and ears of cows, and rowan berries were tied to their tails. [15]When a calf was due to be named, the farmer would go to the wood before daybreak to cut a rowan branch with a piece of copper just as the sun rose. He smacked the calf on the back with it and called it by name. After that he tethered it to the cowshed door, decorated with white ribbons and eggshells.[16] The branch was then hung over the byre all summer.  [A similar ceremony is prescribed in the Vedas for use at new moon.]  In Norway, bark-shavings were fed in the winter to the cattle on a regular basis. Country folk maintained that as a droving stick, rowan would fatten a beast while willow would injure it as rowan never could.[17]

The rowan was regarded as the godmother of milk cows, and the connection between rowan and the safety of the milk is a close one. In Galloway, if a cow was failing to produce milk, any it had given was scattered with pins and stirred over the fire with a rowan stick, and when it came to the boil, rusty nails were thrown in, adding the power of iron to the charm. [18]In the Highlands, milkmaids would carry crosses of rowan fastened with red thread, and kept between the fabric and lining of their dresses ‘against any unseen danger’.[19] In the west of Scotland, a staff of rowan wood was laid above the byre or dairy to preserve the milk from evil influence, while a rowan churn staff secured the butter during churning: [20]   

"Lest witches should obtain the power

 Of Hawkie's milk in evil hour,

 She winds a red thread round her horn,

 And milks thro' row'n tree night and morn;

 Against the blink of evil eye

 She knows each antidote to ply."[21]

In parts of Britain, if the dairy had been cursed, and the cream wouldn’t come after churning for two hours, two rowan twigs were taken, one to stir the cream, and the other to beat the cow. [Similarly, in Yorkshire, boiling jam was stirred with a hazel or rowan stick to prevent the fairies from stealing it.]

In Lincolnshire, when pigs were being fattened, they were given collars of rowan.[22]

Rowan was the chosen switch for driving horses. It was believed that bewitched horses could only be controlled with a rowan whip: ‘If your whipstock’s made of rowan you can ride through any town’. Night travellers tucked rowan sprigs into horses’ bridles, and at Halloween, a rowan cross was held in the hand or in tucked into the bridle to keep the traveller safe.

Rowan is said to protect against lightning as it is never struck by it, which may account for its connection with the thunder god in Northern Traditions. In Scandinavian mythology, Thor was trying to get to the land of the Frost Giants when an evil sorcerer caused the River Vimur to overflow just as he was trying to ford it.  A rowan tree bent down so that he could grasp it and scramble to safety; consequently the rowan became known as ‘Thor’s helper’ or ‘Thor’s tree’. The tree may have been conceived of as Thor’s wife Sif who is usually associated with the golden grain of the harvest, though rowan fruit matures at the same time. Sometimes, the rowan is said to have sprung from a lightening strike, and to embody the lightening. [23]Norse ships had one plank of rowan wood inserted into the hull to protect them from the wrath of Ran, the sea goddess in the belief that Thor would look after his own.[24]

Certainly, Thor’s Finnish counterpart Ukko [‘Oak’] - who like Thor was armed with a hammer, Ukonvasara or ‘Ukko's Hammer’ - was married to Rauni [‘Rowan’], goddess of both the rowan tree [as earth goddess] and motherhood. According to the myth, the earth was barren until Rauni came down from heaven and took the form of a rowan tree. Ukko, the thunder god, struck the tree with a magical bolt of lightening, thus mating with Rauni and creating all the plants of the earth. This was a magical mating of sky god and earth goddess, the quickening referred to in one of the alternative names of the tree. Rowan was often planted as a nurse-tree in coppices to shield the new saplings, so it has the reputation of nurturing new life. Rauni’s festival was 1st May.

Each Finnish household had a rowan tree in its yard as it was thought that lightning never struck near a rowan: i.e. Ukko would never strike his wife, as in Scotland cows were grazed in fields where rowan grew, and in Ireland a piece of rowan was woven into the thatch of a dwelling. [25] The rainbow was referred to poetically as 'The rowan-tree over the world'.[26] This may indicate that Rauni was both the rowan tree and the rainbow which appeared after her husband’s stormy displays, another reason for the ‘rowan’ being a protection against lightening.

            Viper snakes with a lightning-like pattern on their backs were sacred to Ukko. In myth, snakes and lightening are often connected, with the lightening being a kind of fiery serpent. The association of the rowan being a protection from lightening may be the root of its link with snakes and dragons. In Germany, the rowan was called ‘the Dragon Tree’ and on Walpurgis Night it was hung above the door to keep the ‘flying dragon’ at bay. In British folklore the rowan keeps adders at bay.

In Celtic myth, a dragon sometimes guards the wondrous fruit of the rowan. The Irish story of Fraoch is preserved in an 8th century manuscript called the Táin Bó Fraich and describes a magical rowan tree, the berries of which healed the wounded, prolonged life and gave sustenance equal to nine meals. Fraoch wanted to marry the daughter of King Ailill and Queen Meadhbh [Maeve], but instead, the king decided to trick the young man and get him killed. He sent Fraoch to swim across a river to fetch him the rowan berries that grew on the far side. A dragon rose up out of the water, but our hero was able to overcome it and after a few more adventures eventually married his sweetheart.

The Celts believed that rowan berries had mystical properties, as in the above tale. Along with the apple and red nut, they were described as food of the gods. Red foods were generally taboo, considered the food of the dead or of the gods. Their consumption may have been limited to sacred use by the priesthood, or as in Greece, for feasts of the dead. [The serpent’s egg of the Druids may even have been a poetic metaphor for the rowan berry.] The berries were also used to brew an intoxicating drink, perhaps facilitating shamanic travel into the Otherworld, making them an entheogen, a term invented by Gordon Wasson meaning ‘god containing’ because these substances had the ability to allow people to unite the god-consciousness.

In Irish myth, the first woman sprang from the rowan, and the first man from the alder.[27] The Tuatha Dé Danann were thought to have brought rowan to Ireland from Tír Tairngire [the Land of Promise]. In Tochmarc Étaíne [The Wooing of Étaín], the jealous Fuamnach transforms Étaín into a pool of water by striking her with a rod of rowan. Often the rowanberry was thought capable of rejuvenation – a man of one hundred and sixty years could be returned to youth by the honey taste of rowanberries. The Salmon of Knowledge [Irish eó fis, eó fiosach] eats rowanberries.

In the romance of Diarmaid Ua Duibhne and Grainne, rowan berries appear as the food of the gods. Diarmaid and Grainne were two young lovers, fleeing from Grainne’s elderly husband. They had many adventures, but one concerned a magical rowan tree guarded by an ogre called Searbhan. The ogre granted them permission to stay in the forest, so long as they did not touch the fruit of his tree. However, Grainne was pregnant, and began to crave the berries, and Diarmaid had to slay the ogre in an horrific battle so that she could have them. Grainne’s name means ‘Ugly One’ and the hidden meaning of the complete story seems to be about sovereignty. The sovereign goddess of the land appears in alternate forms of hag and maiden, and the king must win her by a kiss or by accepting a drink from her hand. In this tale, the old king and the young king compete for her. When she is pregnant, she craves the quickening berries of the rowan.

In Ireland, a legend tells of the “Forest of Dooros,” where the “Fairy Host” dwelt. It was believed that eating one of the berries, which tasted of sweet honey, would make a person very happy, giving long life. There was a guardian of the Great Rowan Tree called Sharvan. In Irish legends, 'the rowan tree in the north' bore the berries of immortality. The tree was guarded by a Fomorian giant with one fiery eye in the middle of his forehead.

Greek mythology tells of how Hebe the goddess of youth, dispensed rejuvenating ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When, through carelessness, she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover the cup. The feathers and drops of blood which the eagle shed in the ensuing fight with the demons fell to earth, where each of them turned into a rowan tree. Hence the rowan derived the shape of its leaves from the eagle's feathers and the appearance of its berries from the droplets of blood.

In ancient Ireland, the happy dead rest under woven roofs of quicken or rowan boughs. In Wales, rowan trees were planted in the graveyards and the coffin often rested for a time beneath them during the funeral procession. It is possible this was done to protect the spirits of the dead, or to prevent the ghosts walking afterwards. In ancient Ireland, a rowan stake hammered through a corpse immobilised its ghost. Rowan has a long association with spirits, the Otherworld and immortality. Three hags spitted the dog of Cuchulain (probably his animal fetch) with rowan twigs, to secure his death. Druids lit fires of rowan wood to summon the spirits of the dead to assist warriors in battle. 

The pre-Gallic French name of the rowan, alisier, connects to the Greek river goddess Halys, Queen of the Elysian islands, a variant of the Celtic Avalon ‘Apple Island’,[28] and the sorb-apple rather than the malus may be the apple of Avalon. 

As a plant of the Otherworld, the rowan features in the Irish romance of the House of the Quicken Trees. Miodac, the son of the King of Lochlann, once tricked the Fianna into the enchanted House of the Rowan Trees. He told them he had a great feast prepared for them in a house beyond the Ford of the Quicken trees, so they went to enjoy the hospitality. It was a fair and beautiful building, with bright intricate carvings on the wood of its uprights and a fresh thatch that shone in the sun like gold, and all around it grew quicken trees with berries full and red on them.  The house was beautiful, with walls of every colour, and a fire that gave out pleasantly scented smoke, but after a while, this turned into a horrible stench, and the lovely walls could be seen to be nothing more than rough planks nailed together. The seven high doors they had seen were now just one mean door, tightly closed. The lovely rugs they had rested upon were nothing but bare ground, and furthermore, no of them could rise from where they sat, no matter how hard they tried. It was the treachery of Miodac, and the spells of the Three Kings of the Island of the Floods that had brought them into danger. Finn put his thumb in his mouth and divined who their enemies were, and bade his men sound the music of the Dord Fiann. At that, some of the Fianna waiting outside heard the sorrowful melody, and they stirred themselves to fight Miodac and his armies, but things would have gone badly for them had not the great warrior Diarmuid, grandson of Duibhne, made an end of Miodac and Three Kings of the Island of the Floods. He cut off the heads of the kings’ sons, and sprinkled the floor of the House of the Rowan Trees with the blood to remove the spell.[29] With the first ray of the dawn sun, the Fianna regained their strength. It was only after he rode away from the burning Hostel of the Quicken Trees that Diarmuid realised that this was the same ford over which he had carried the Morrigan, disguised as a hag, many years before. 

Despite the fact that it is said to repel witches, the rowan is closely associated with witchcraft and magic. A rowan divining rod was often called a witch wand, used for finding metal ore, just as a hazel rod was the traditional tool to find underground water. Rowan has a natural affinity to rocky places, where metal ore is usually found.

The Welsh once brewed a visionary drink from the rowan, although the recipe for this is now lost. In a divination ceremony, the Druids would spread a flayed bull’s hide over wattles of rowan to travel into the Otherworld.  The growths which form on a rowan tree were considered to contain all knowledge, and thus the tree was considered oracular. As it played a central role in druid ceremonies it was named fid na druad or 'the Druid's tree'.

Rowan wood was also used to make rune staves, used in divination. According to Nigel Pennick, in Britain the ‘tree of runes’ is the rowan.[30] The Roman historians Tacitus and Vernantius Fortunatis both mention that the Germanic tribes casting auguries using sticks of ash wood carved with signs, a system Fortunatis named as 'runa' meaning ‘a mystery’, suggesting a link with the rowan. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of ‘rune’ and ‘rowan’ are very similar.

In the ogham system, rowan is Luis, a peasant tree associated with birth and protection. In the finger ogham system, the rowan corresponds to the tip of the forefinger, the most sensitive part of the hand. Robert Graves speculated that the use of finger ogham induced a poetic trance used in an oracular rite, as his finger ogham poem makes clear:

Rowan rod, forefinger,

By power of divination

Unriddle him a riddle;

The key’s cast away.[31]

 

There were oracular groves of rowan in Rügen and other Baltic islands. Rowan also seems to have had associations with the Greek oracular god Orpheus, whose singing decapitated head, like that of the Celtic alder god Bran, uttered prophecies. His father’s name was Oeagrus, which means ‘Of the Wild Sorb-apple’, i.e. ‘of the rowan’. Diodorus Siculus wrote that Orpheus used the thirteen consonant alphabet, and his reputation of being able to move the trees with his song may relate to this.[32]

Particularly magical is a young tree found growing in the fork of an old tree, as sometimes happens with the rowan: Often birds' droppings contain rowan seeds, and if such droppings land in a fork or hole where old leaves have accumulated on a larger tree, such as an oak or a maple, they may result in a rowan growing as an epiphyte on the larger tree.  because it does not grow on the earth, evil has no power over it. In Norway and Sweden, this was known as a Flögrönn [‘necromancer’ or ‘flying rowan’].  Anyone out after dark chewing a bit of the flying rowan was secure against all witchcraft.    A Norwegian story relates how some ploughmen were so bewitched by a troll that they could not plough straight furrows.  Only one man could do so and that was because his plough was made from flying rowan. In Sweden, the divining rod was made from flying rowan. 

The magical reputation of the virtues of the rowan predates the Celts, since they frequently occurred around stone circles, a fact which John Lightfoot noted in his Flora Scotia (1777).

The rowan is associated with fairies, and in Scotland it was believed that fairies inhabited the tree. Scottish Fairies were said to hold their celebrations within stone circles protected by Rowan trees. A Slavic tree spirit known as Musail, the forest tsar, king of the forest spirits, is associated with the Rowan tree.

The three fiery arrows of the goddess Brighid were said to be made of rowan and may relate to the triple arrow sign of Awen, meaning ‘inspiration’. According to Robert Graves[33], the old Irish poetic name for rowan is "delight of the eye” ['Luisiu orflam] referring to the constantly burning flame of Brighid, whose triple gifts were poetic inspiration, healing and smithcraft.

 

MAGICAL USES:

Rowan's associations are with witchcraft, protection, divination and the dead. The berries are marked with the sign of the pentagram, a sign of protection, magic and the calling and banishing of spirits.

Rowan helps to communicate with the spirit world. The berries, wood and leaves can be dried and burned as an incense to invoke spirits, familiars, spirit guides and elementals, to ask for their help when seeking visions, particularly at Samhain and Imbolc.

Rowan wood may be used for making tools of divination, particularly a divining rod to locate metal. Amulets or talismans of rowan will also help in this regard.

The wine or tea may be taken to induce prophetic dreams and the incense burned whilst seeking visions.

Its name is linked with the Norse word "runa", meaning "a charm", and the the Sanskrit "runa", meaning “a magician. Rune staves, sticks on which the runes were inscribed, were made of Rowan wood and it would be an appropriate wood to choose for making a set of ogham sticks if you wanted to make a set quickly without waiting to collect each stick from each of the relevant trees.

The berries or wood can also be used in an incense to banish undesirable entities and thought-forms. A rowan cross, made of two twigs of rowan, tied with red thread, may be hung in the home for protection. A rowan wand is used for casting a protective circle. Plant a protective rowan tree near your house.

Red is the colour which indicates the latent life and rebirth potential in the dead, as such red foods are used in feasts of the dead. At Samhain, when we seek to contact the Mighty Dead for their guidance, rowan foods and wine are suitable.

    Rowan is sacred to Brighid and Brigantia, and may be used at Imbolc, the quickening of the year, continues...

FOLK MEDICINE:

continue...

 

MEDICINAL:

An infusion of the berries makes an antiseptic gargle for sore throats, inflamed tonsils and hoarseness. A decoction of bark or rowan jelly is used for diarrhoea and vaginal irritations. The berries are also a rich source of Vitamin C. Fresh rowan berry juice is usable as a laxative, gargle for sore throats, inflamed tonsils, hoarseness, and as a source of vitamins A and C. used in the nineteenth century to treat scurvy. Rowan berry jam will remedy diarrhoea. An infusion of the berries will benefit haemorrhoids and strangury. The bark can also be used as an astringent for loose bowels and vaginal irritations. Rowan is also used for eye irritations, spasmic pains in the uterus, heart/bladder problems, neuralgia, gout and waist constrictions. Even today, one of the sugars in the fruit is sometimes given intravenously to reduce pressure in an eyeball with glaucoma.  The bark was also employed for several medicinal purposes. A decoction of the bark was considered a blood cleanser and was used to treat diarrhoea, nausea, and upset stomach. continues...

Parts Used: bark, flowers and fruit

 

Constituents: The ripe fruits contain much malic acid, with citric acid continues...

 

Actions: Diuretic, Astringent, Haemostatic, Vulnerary, Febrifuge, Digestive, Expectorant, Demulcent, Anti-Scorbutic, Vaso-Dilator

 

Dosage: Both for prophylactic and remedial use in cases of cold dried rowan blossom and berry (in proportions of 1:1) tea or infusion is used. Take 3 tablespoons of herb and pour on 1 litre of boiling water. Use 1 glass of liquid once per day adding 1 tablespoon of natural honey.

 

Precautions: The raw berries also contain parasorbic acid which causes indigestion and can lead to kidney damage, but heat treatment (cooking, heat-drying etc.) and, to a lesser extent, freezing, neutralises it, by changing it to the benign sorbic acid.

 READY REFERENCE

Magical uses:  Divination, protection, calling and banishing spirits

Cautions: The berries can be slightly toxic if not cooked.

Planetary ruler: variously associated with the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Uranus and Mercury

Star sign: Aquarius

Element: Water/ fire

Bird familiar: Duck

Animal familiar: Cow

Colour: grey/red

Gemstone: ruby / yellow crysolite,

Runes: Nyd

Ogham: Luis

Festival: Imbolc, Samhain

Station: North-east

Magical tool: wand, shuttle, divining rod

Gender: variously given as male or female

Associated deities: Brigantia/ Brighid, Thor, Rauni, Sif, Halys, Orpheus

 

RECIPES:

 

ROWAN WINE

2 lb. rowan berries

2 oranges

3 lb. sugar

2 tsp. dried yeast

1/2 gallon boiling water

Remove the stalks from the berries, wash and place in a fermentation bin. Pour the boiling water over them and leave for three days, stirring daily.  Put 1.5 pints of water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the sugar to make a syrup then add to the fermentation bin along with the juice and grated rind of the oranges. Stir thoroughly and then strain into a demi-jon. Top up with cooled, boiled water, add the yeast and leave to ferment out. When fermentation is complete rack off into a clear demi-jon and leave to clear. Bottle when clear.

 

ROWAN BRANDY

Large handful rowan berries

1 pint brandy

1 pint sugar syrup made from 1 part sugar to 1 part water

Leave the berries on a plate in a warm place for several days until they become shrivelled. Put in a bottle with the brandy and leave for 2 weeks, turning the bottle frequently. Strain out the berries and mix the brandy well with the syrup which has been slightly warmed. Bottle,

 

ROWAN JELLY

900g (2lb) Rowan Berry
900g (2lb) Crab Apples
1.8lt (3 pints) Water
Sugar

Pick over the rowan berries, removing any stalks, wash if necessary, drying well.
Wash the whole crab apples, removing any bruised parts.
Place the fruit and just enough water to cover into a heavy bottomed saucepan.
Bring to the boil and simmer, covered for 20 - 25 minutes, until tender.
Strain through a jelly bag or muslin cloth, allow about 4 hours for this, do not squeeze as this will cause the jelly to become cloudy.
Measure the volume of the liquid, add 450g (1lb) of sugar for each pint (600ml) of liquid.
Place the sugar in an ovenproof bowl and put it in the centre of a pre-heated oven for 10 - 15 minutes.
Place the juice back into a heavy bottomed saucepan, add the sugar, stirring until fully dissolved.
Bring to the boil and cook rapidly for 10 - 15 minutes until the setting point is reached.
Skim the surface if necessary; allow to cool slightly then pot.

Makes: 3 - 4lb

 Herb menu

 


 

[1] Morann Mac Main’s Ogham in the old Irish Book of Ballymote

[2] Kaledon Naddair, Keltic Folk and Fairy Tales

[3] The Auraicept na n-Éces ("The Scholars' Primer") is claimed as a 7th century work of Irish grammarians, written by a scholar named Longarad. The only surviving copy of the Auraicept is preserved in the Book of Ballymote (foll. 169r–180r), compiled by Maghnus Ó Duibhgeánáin of County Sligo in 1390.

[4] Hugh Fife, Warriors and Guardians: Native Highland Trees,Argyll Publishing, 1994

[5] M.Macleod Banks, British Cale4ndar Customs: Scotland,  Folklore Society, 1937

[6] J.C. Atkinson, Forty Years in a Moorland Parish,  Macmillan, 1886

[7] C.Roeder [ed.], Manx Notes and Queries, S.K.Broadbent & Co Ltd, Douglas, 1904

[8] Elias Owen, Welsh Folklore, Oswestry, 1896

[9] Printed in The Local Historian's Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences, Historical Facts, Traditions, Legendary and Descriptive Ballads, &c., &c., Connected with the Counties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland and Durham. Legendary Division. Vol. 1. Newcastle-upon-Tyne (M.A. Richardson, 1842) where it was claimed that the song was about 500 years old, made by the old mountain-bard, Duncan Frasier, living on Cheviot, A.D. 1270 and first printed from an ancient manuscript by the Rev. Robert Lambe, Vicar of Norham.

[10] Mrs M.Macleod Banks,  British Calendar Customs: Scotland,  Folklore Society, 1937

[11] James Napier, Folk Lore Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within This Century, Alex Gardiner, Paisley, 1879

[12] John Ramsey, Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, Edinburgh, 1888

[13] James Napier, Folk Lore Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within This Century, Alex Gardiner, Paisley, 1879

[14] John Gregorson Campbell, Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Maclehose, Glasgow, 1900

[15] Mrs M.Macleod Banks, British Calendar Customs:Orkney and Shetland, Folklore Society, 1946

[16] http://www.dutchie.org/Tracy/trees/celtic_tree_rowan.html

[17] Charlotte S.Burne, The Handbook of Folklore,  Folklore Society, 1914

[18] R.H.Cromek, Remains of Nithdale and Galloway Song,  Cadell and Davies, 1810

[19] W.Grant Stewart, The Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland, Constable, Glasgow, 1823

[20] James Napier, Folk Lore Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within This Century, Alex Gardiner, Paisley, 1879

[21] James Napier, Folk Lore Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within This Century, Alex Gardiner, Paisley, 1879

[22] M.Gutch and M.Peacock, Country Folklore, Lincolnshire, The Folklore Society, 1908

[23] T.F. Thistleton Dyer, The Folklore of Plants, Chatto and Windus, 1889

[24] Charles M. Skinner, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants in all Ages and in all Climes, Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1925

[25] Lady Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, Chatto and Windus, 1902

[26] Virve Sarapik http://www.folklore.ee/Folklore/vol6/rainbow.htm

[27] W.G. Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Longman, 1902

[28] Robert Graves, The White Goddess, Faber and Faber, London, 1961

[29] Lady Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men, 1904.

[30] Nigel Pennick, ‘Complete illustrated Guide to Runes’  Element, London, 1999

[31] Robert Graves, The White Goddess, Faber and Faber, London, 1961

[32] Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Penguin Books, London, 1955

[33] Robert Graves, The White Goddess, Faber and Faber, London, 1961