www.barrowvoice.co.uk - First Publised 1975
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Rowans: more than red berries

After summer’s article in Barrow Voice about hedges and the Rosaceae family I came across the rowan tree as belonging to that family too. Although one of its common names is Mountain Ash it’s not related to the big ash trees we see on roads leading in and out of Barrow.

Rowan is Rosaceae sorbus acuparia whilst the ash tree goes under the wonderful name of Oleaceae fraxinus excelsior, very majestic! That’s also the family name of olives and lilacs.

The rowan probably got its common name from where it originated high in the northern hills and bleak mountains of the British Isles, gnarled and bent clinging to life on rocky outcrops.

Its very being there enriches the poor, rocky soil for surrounding vegetation. It’s often grown for just that purpose when foresters are planting a new stand of trees because rowans quickly provide a windbreak and nourishment for the young tees.

It’s a small neat tree and also suited to lower regions. It does well in gardens and verges growing to about 30 feet tall and not usually needing to be pruned back to keep it in check.

In spring its creamy-white, tiny scented flowers grow in flat clusters beloved by bees that help pollinate them for the scarlet berries in autumn. These berries, when ripe, soon attract the birds: if you are very lucky you'll see waxwings fill the tree then, just as suddenly, fly away leaving the tree bare of fruit. They are rare visitors but not impossible to see in Barrow.

Once we went dashing down Slash Lane as we'd heard that they'd been seen there. Sadly we missed them …they'd flown.....but other folk had excitedly spotted them. One day maybe....

Rowan mythology goes back to Greek and Roman times. In the British Isles the tree is said to protect against magic and witchcraft having local country names such as wicken or witch-wood. In olden times rowans were planted as a protection against evil, near to houses to guard the family within, and in such places as graveyards and stone circles to combat supernatural forces.

Rowan wood was used for many things: for a child’s crib or old-folks walking-sticks; for spindles and spinning-wheels and sailing-masts for small boats. The wood, they thought, protected all those who used it. Christian crosses were often made from rowan wood too - thus giving religious protection in both old and new ways.

Although not to be eaten raw, rowan berries have their uses in the kitchen; rowan jelly to complement meat or poultry, rowan wine and even rowan vodka - made rather like sloe gin.

But it’s the pretty tree itself that I think is lovely; the soft, downy pinnate leaves as they emerge in spring through to the lovely creamy flowers of early summer, then as the autumn arrives the scarlet berries hold sway until hungry birds eat them up leaving the rowan free for its last bow before winter. In good years the leaves can turn through golds and reds to deep burgundy. This leaves us with the tree’s bare beauty until the following spring and the cycle of life starts again.

Maggie J.