There are some trees that you don’t notice for most of the year. They fade into the background, and are just part of the sea of green. The rowan tree blends in with the crowd until August, when its vibrant orange berries, contrasted against bright blue September skies, takes centre stage until stripped by hungry birds. The tree’s feathery foliage gives it one of its common names, ‘mountain ash’.
Traditionally planted by households as protection against witches, the rowan has a long history of magical uses. Hung over stable doors, used for stirring cream in the Lake District, cut as a pocket charm against rheumatism in Cornwall, and hung as a cross above doors in the Isle of Man, its protective power against witchcraft and dark forces is widespread throughout Britain, and Northern Europe in general. Everywhere from Austria to Finland has its rowan traditions, using it as a sign of turning seasons, and to protect against fairies on their summer processions.
More prosaically, the berries can be cooked with crab apples into a sharp, tangy jelly to pair with game or cheese, and in Austria a schnapps is made from the bright juicy berries.
The rowan is also loved by wildlife. Birds will strip a tree in a couple of days during a cold snap, and there are many butterfly and moth species that use the tree as a food source for their caterpillars. The white frothy flower heads provide food for insects in the summer, and the tree’s ability to survive in exposed, battered spots means its often a welcome source of food in a harsh environment.
Next time you’re out, look out for the glowing berries, and the birds that may well be feasting, but don’t worry – you shouldn’t bump into any witches!