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Legends and Lore of the Rowan Tree

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Following my father's funeral in 2006, I took the 'DAD' floral tribute home and created a remembrance garden in a bare piece of ground alongside my drive. Within a month, heavy rain cascaded off my neighbour's garage roof onto the newly-planted garden and wrecked it. Heartbroken, I dug the whole lot up, leaving only the 'DAD' frame in place. The plot was barren for a while as I thought nothing would survive another deluge. Then I noticed a sapling was growing and sprouting - it was a Rowan tree. It's almost as if, having lost my earthly protector, my father ensured I would carry on being taken care of by a tree of protection.
- An H2G2 Researcher

In ancient myths and legends the Rowan tree (Latin name Sorbus) was regarded as the mother of all trees and plants. As such, the Rowan tree is revered in many cultures and even worshipped by some as a goddess. Throughout history the Rowan has been eulogised as a protective symbol and is said to have magical properties. Rowan berries, which have a high level of Vitamin C, bear a five-pointed star (pentagram) on their base. As the pentagram is an ancient protective symbol, this feature epitomises the Rowan tree's legend as a tree of protection. Rowan saplings were once planted in churchyards and cemeteries to ward off malevolent spirits. A Rowan tree growing close to a property is thought to protect the occupants from witches' spells and the home from disastrous weather like lightning strikes and fierce storms. For this reason, not just for their aesthetic qualities, many homes feature rowans at entrances. Here we will explore interesting facts and stories about the Rowan tree and perhaps learn to understand this masterpiece of Mother Nature.

A Rose, by any Other Name

Although also known as the Mountain Ash, it's not related to the ash species at all, but is instead a member of the rose family. Rowan trees are also known by various other names throughout history, folk legends and the Wiccan religion. Examples are: Lady of the Mountain, Quickbeam, Quicken, the Rune Tree, Sorb Apple, Thor's Helper, the Traveller's Tree, Tree of Bards, the Whispering Tree, Witchbane and the Wicken Tree. JRR Tolkien's Middle-earth world features a humanoid tree called Quickbeam.

In the Celtic tree calendar of the year, which has 13 sacred tree species, Rowan Moon is the second month, from 21 January to 17 February. Rowan is thought to be the first tree to bud after winter. White flowers blossom in spring, beloved by pollinators including bees. Bunches of orange or red berries in summer will feed a multitude of birds including blackbirds, redwings, robins and thrushes, which will disperse the tree's seeds in their droppings. There's a Rowan variety endemic to China which produces white berries, and another native to China and Myanmar which brings forth pink berries on bright red stalks.

Rowan berries, which have a five-pointed star (pentagram) on their base.

Rowan berry wine and a strong alcoholic spirit used to be created by ancient Celts. If you're just after a refreshing brew, why not try Rowan berry tea? You could treat yourself to a meal of game served with tart Rowan berry jelly. Welsh people historically brewed an ale from Rowan berries, and in Ireland, they were added to their mead recipe for those who preferred a different flavour to honey. It's possible to create a dye from Rowan berries, as they are a good source of tannin. Wrap dried Rowan berries in white cloth, tie with white or purple ribbon, and hang it in your kitchen. It's a charm that is supposed to protect the cook from colds, the 'flu and other ailments which would stop them preparing meals. Midwives used to gift new mothers with a Rowan charm to enable easy lactation and ensure breastmilk was plentiful.

Rowan twigs and strings of red,
Deflect all harm, gossip, and dread.

- ancient protection charm

Rowan wood is strong and sturdy, suitable for a walking stick, which, it's said, will protect the owner from mischievous spirits of the woodland. Lucky charms, made from Rowan twigs and bound together with red twine, once protected cows and other livestock. Crosses made from Rowan twigs once adorned barns and animal pens, to ward off evil influences.

On Beltane1, the Gaelic May Day festival, Rowan is one of the nine sacred woods burnt in the fire. As the Maypole itself is made from Rowan wood, it's associated with romance and new love. Druids would also have used the wood for funeral pyres and anything sacred like runes, wands and divining rods (for metal). In Scotland there is a superstition that the Rowan tree should not be cut for its wood, but to use fallen branches instead.

A 'Flying Rowan' is not rooted in the ground. If it is growing from rock, it is known as a flogron. There are examples of flying rowan growing on other trees, and out of the edge of a precipice. Such a tree is especially revered by Druids. There is a belief that flying rowans were once protected by dragons, as they were thought to be gateways to otherworldly places like the fairy realm.

Rowan is a lovely name. There's a city called Rowan in Iowa, USA, and a Rowan County in Kentucky and North Carolina2 4599 Rowan is a 13km-wide asteroid which was discovered by Belgian   astronomer Henri Debehogne (1928 - 2007) in September 1985. In Hamadan Province, Iran, there is a village called Rowan. Saint Rowan was an Irish abbot who lived during the 6th Century - he is one of the Apostles of Ireland. Rowan Williams (born 1950), is a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop of Wales and Bishop of Monmouth. Rowan Atkinson CBE (born 1955), is a very talented English actor, comedian, singer and screenwriter. His best-known portrayals are as 'Edmund Blackadder', the voice of 'Zazu' in The Lion King (1994), and 'Mr Bean'. Henry Madison Rowan (1923 - 2015) was an American bomber pilot in WWII, engineer, author and philanthropist. Glassboro State College in New Jersey was renamed Rowan University in his honour. Prof Sheila Rowan CBE (born 1969), is a Scottish physicist who has worked on gravitational waves. She holds a patent for silicon carbide bonding, is a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), won the Suffrage Science award in 2017, and became President of the Institute of Physics in 2021. Gay Rowan starred in the much-panned Canadian TV series The Starlost. Rowan Bale is a paediatric speech and language therapist for NHS Lincolnshire Community Health Services.

Myths and Tales

A European peacock butterfly in a garden
Hebe bush with Peacock butterfly visitor

Rowan leaves are compared to the spread of an eagle's wing, thanks to a Greek myth about a clumsy goddess called Hebe (Roman equivalent name Juventas). Known as the goddess of youth, Hebe's one job was keeping her golden chalice topped up with ambrosia to feed to the other gods. One day she was distracted from her task by a colourful butterfly and the chalice was stolen by demons. Zeus sent an eagle to recover the chalice and during the ensuing battle, the eagle was injured and dripped blood and feathers onto the Earth. Where they fell, Rowan trees grew. This story explains the feather shape of Rowan leaves and redness of the berries. The tale has a happy ending for Hebe, she handed her chalice duties over to her brother Ganymede when she married the newly-deified Heracles. Hebe and Heracles went on to have two sons, Alexiares and Anicetus. There is a genus of plants named after Hebe, from which beautiful butterflies sup nectar, also known as the wine of the gods.

In ancient Finnish mythology the goddess Rauni visited a barren Earth and felt so sad, she turned herself into a Rowan tree. This attracted the attention of Ukko, the Finnish god of the sky, weather and thunder. Sparks flew and their cataclysmic union created lightning, which seeded all of the trees and plants that grow on Earth. Ukko and Rauni reside in heavenly realms but, just occasionally, they can be heard arguing, that's when a storm is brewing. When Rauni swears, lightning strikes. When Ukko gets angry, the skies darken and thunder roars. Before long, peace reigns between the couple, clouds disperse and the sun shines again.

There is a sad story in Lithuanian legend about a blue-eyed orphan girl, who lived with an uncaring step-mother who treated her like a slave. Sent out barefoot in the rain to forage for food, the young girl cried when the wind tipped over her basket of berries. She strung the spoiled berries and placed them around her neck. Wearing moss on her feet, she prayed to become a tree so she wouldn't have to return to the loveless home. Her wish was granted and she was turned into a Rowan tree.

One Irish tale tells of faerie folk dancing in stone circles in Rowan tree woods under the light of a full moon. Apparently, these shenanigans can be witnessed by non-fae people providing copious amounts of a magical elixir have been imbibed.

In Norse mythology, the first man was created from an Ash tree, with the first woman formed from Rowan.

The Rowan is the salvation of Thor
- Icelandic proverb
The alternative name 'Thor's Helper' stems from a story wherein a Rowan tree saved the Norse god Thor. You'd think Thor wouldn't need any help, being a god, but this was in the Norse equivalent to the Underworld, Helheim, and the rules are different there. Thor had killed a giant, Geirrodr, but before he could escape from Helheim, the dead giant's daughter Gjalp tried to drown Thor using her bodily fluids. He was being swept away and would have drowned but for a Rowan tree bending its branches into the unsanitary flow, allowing Thor to haul himself out. We hope Thor had a purification ritual before returning to Asgard.

11 May in the Northern Hemisphere, 1 November in the Southern Hemisphere.2In North Carolina it is pronounced 'Roh-ANN'.

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