Rowan is a striking tree, cloaked in mythology and complex ecological relationships. RSPB Scotland's Molly Martin shares five facts about this autumn superstar.
Five facts to know about rowan
The berries of the rowan tree are bright red and appear in heavy bunches at the end of summer, persisting throughout autumn and into winter. They are edible to humans, containing lots of vitamin C, and are often made into a tart jam.
You might know rowan by another name. It also goes by mountain ash, wayfarer’s or traveller’s tree, keirn/cuirn, witch wiggin tree, or wizard’s tree.
Rowan has a long history in folklore, especially in its association with witches and magic. Red was thought to be the best colour to ward off evil spirits, and so rowan, with its bright red berries, was often planted around houses to keep inhabitants safe. Sprigs of rowan were carried by people to protect them from enchantments, and stirring milk with a rowan twig was thought to prevent it from curdling. The wood was often favoured for making divining rods. Due to its protective powers, it was taboo to cut down a rowan tree in Scotland.
The regeneration of rowan depends on the grazing of birds, as its berries are favourite foods of migratory thrushes such as redwing and fieldfare. Berries develop after the flowers are pollinated by insects. Birds will eat the berries and then fly elsewhere, either to find more food or to roost, dropping the rowan seeds away from the parent tree. This reduces competition and gives the young rowan saplings a better chance of growing. However the story doesn’t end here! To ensure the saplings survive to adulthood, they grow quickly to avoid browsing by other animals including deer, mountain hare, voles, and even slugs, which love munching on the young leaves.
Rowan is often referred to as mountain ash due to its ability to grow at high altitudes, in fact it grows higher up than any other tree in the UK, and had been found at elevations up to 1000 meters above sea level in the highlands of Scotland! It can even grow in what seem to be the most adverse conditions; such as hanging of cliff faces, on the sides of steep river banks, and sprawling over large expanses of rock.
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