I’ve always had rather a soft spot for the lovely and graceful rowan tree, which has had many different names throughout history – mountain ash (though I seem to recall this is not overly accurate as the mountain ash is a different kind of tree entirely) Quickbeam, Tree of Life, Lady of the Mountains, Druid Tree, Tree of the Wizard, Witchwand, Quicken Tree… the list continues! I’ve not worked with the lovely rowan for quite a long while, so this autumn I’ve taken the chance to reacquaint myself with her charms.
We don’t have many Rowan trees growing locally – these days the tree seems to be cultivated as an attractive tree in suburbs and gardens rather than growing wild, at least around Lincolnshire. There are a few on the common and down by the river, but none out near the Wolds, which is rather a shame as the tree is really rather beautiful!
Usually held to be a feminine tree, ruled by the moon, the rowan is rather solitary by nature and prefers to be left to her own devices, holding court in solitary splendour amongst woodlands and commonlands. The tree is a pretty thing indeed, with a silvery grey trunk, toothed leaves that turn gorgeous shades of gold and copper in the autumn, and bright red berries that adorn the trunks in heavy clusters from August onwards – I find the Rowan tree gaining her berries to be the first real indicator that summer is turning to autumn.
Thought to have been brought to Ireland by the Tuatha de Danaan, the witch tree has long been associated with protection, especially from witchcraft and lightning, which is interesting given that the Rowan is, as the name suggests, also associated with witchcraft! It has long been hung over and near stables and houses to protect the occupants from any kind of danger, as well as planted in graveyards to protect the dead. Incidentally, as another long association with witchcraft, the tree is also used for divination, and was previously part of a visionary drink. It was also used for the invocation of spirits – a witch tree indeed! In celtic legend, the berries are used to lengthen life and are one of the foods of the Gods themselves, guarded by dragons! Stakes made from the wood are used to immobilise the spirit inside a corpse – perhaps the origin of the vampire legends? Rowan foods and wines can be used in Samhain rituals as a way to contact the ancestors for advice and guidance. The name ‘Witchwand’ refers to the old use of the wood to make divining wands to aid in the discovery of metal. Rowan berries can be worn to guard off the chances of being pixie led or drawn into faerie unwittingly.
Medicinally, the berries can be used to relieve sore throats, tonsilitis and related problems. The jam can be used year round to treat diarrhoea – which is interesting given that the berries are described as being laxative! The berries have previously been used as a substitute for coffee beans and can also be used to flavour various alcohols and cordials. The welsh used them in a kind of ale. The bark is astringent, as are so many of these trees, and can be used to relieve loose bowels. A tincture of the bark can be used to relieve fevers.
My latest explorations into the Rowan tree have been making rowan berry hoops by threading fresh berries onto copper wire, and making rowan berry and apple jelly, using local fruit – it turned out the most glorious rich pink colour!
Rowan Jelly & Crab Apple Jelly
15 crab apples
10 or so bunches of rowan berries
one or two lemons
2 pints water
A lot of sugar – I added about equal proportions of sugar to liquid.
Chop the apples finely, toss them into a pan with the destalked rowan berries. Add the water and simmer slowly until all the fruit is soft, then mash the whole lot thoroughly and let it drip through a jelly bag. Don’t try and push the pulp through unless you don’t mind a cloudy jelly – I wanted this one to come out clear so I let it drip through in its own time. Then I added equal amounts of sugar to the liquid and warmed it slowly until the sugar had all dissolved. Once that had all been done, I boiled it thoroughly for a good long while, testing it regularly until it reached setting point, then poured the resulting liquid into good clean jars. The resulting jelly is tart but sweet, with a lovely flavour. It works an absolute treat with cheese and cold meats, and I suspect it would be delicious with roast chicken! It should store well as well.
‘Rowan is the ancient enchantress who holds all creation in her circle of light’ – Ellen Evert Hopman
To my mind, the Rowan straddles the border between faery, the underworld and this world. She brings balance and protection and a certain grace to the thoughts, encouraging creativity and magic.