Rowan is also known as mountain ash and is native to the UK and northern and western Europe.
Common name: rowan, mountain ash, witch wiggin tree, keirn, cuirn
Scientific name: Sorbus aucuparia
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: rowan is also known as the mountain ash, due to the fact that it grows well at high altitudes and its leaves are similar to those of ash, Fraxinus excelsior. However, the two species are not related.
What does rowan look like?
Overview: mature trees can grow to 15m and can live for up to 200 years. The bark is smooth and silvery grey, and leaf buds are purple and hairy.
Leaves: pinnate (like a feather), comprising 5-8 pairs of leaflets, plus one ‘terminal’ leaflet at the end. Each leaflet is long, oval and toothed.
Flowers: rowan is hermaphrodite, meaning each flower contains both male and female reproductive parts. Flowers are borne in dense clusters, each one bearing five creamy white petals
Fruits: after successful pollination by insects, they develop into scarlet fruits. The seeds are dispersed by birds.
Look out for: it has 5-8 pairs of serrated leaflets which are distinctive.
Could be confused with: ash (Fraxinus excelsior) or elder (Sambucus nigra), however, the leaflets are serrated and more or less pointed at the end in rowan than both of these.
Identified in winter by: the young twigs start hairy and become smooth later. Buds are hairy all over. Terminal buds (on the ends of shoots) are up to 8mm in length and lateral buds (in leaf axils) have 2-5 scales.
Where to find rowan
Native to cooler regions of the northern hemisphere and most common in the UK in the north and west, it often grows in high altitude locations.
It is commonly found in the wild, particularly in the highlands of Scotland, but it is also widely planted as a street or garden tree.
Value to wildlife
The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths, including the larger Welsh wave and autumn green carpet. Caterpillars of the apple fruit moth feed on the berries.
Flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinating insects, while the berries are a rich source of autumn food for birds, especially the blackbird, mistle thrush, redstart, redwing, song thrush, fieldfare and waxwing.
Mythology and symbolism
Rowan was once widely planted by houses as a protection against witches. The colour red was considered to be the best colour for fighting evil, and so the rowan, with its bright red berries, has long been associated with magic and witches. Its old Celtic name is ‘fid na ndruad’, which means wizards’ tree. In Ireland it was planted near houses to protect them against spirits, and in Wales rowan trees were planted in churchyards. Cutting down a rowan was considered taboo in Scotland.
The wood was used for stirring milk to prevent it curdling, and as a pocket charm against rheumatism. It was also used to make divining rods.
How we use rowan
The wood is pale yellow-brown with a deeper brown heartwood. It is strong, hard and tough, but not particularly durable. It is sometimes used in turnery, furniture, craftwork and engraving.
It’s widely planted as a street tree.
Rowan berries are edible to humans – they are sour but rich in vitamin C, and can be used to make a jelly to accompany meats.
Rowan can be susceptible to fireblight and may be affected by silver leaf disease. It can also suffer from browsing by deer.