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Tree of the Month - Rowan
By Maria Ellis  //  Wed 13th September 2017
Trees, Nature, Tree Nursery
Our relationship with trees is an ancient and intricate connection that shifts and changes over time, from place to place and society to society. Throughout our history, trees and woodlands have provided us with shelter, building resources, food, medicine and recreation but they have also been places of darkness, myth and danger. They have been roamed by royal hunting parties, outlaws and poachers alike and have a rich history in our literature as the most popular setting for fairytales in which innocent villagers are lured into danger and monsters lurk behind every leaf. The meanings that we have ascribed to trees over the years make them important in more than just a biological, scientific sense. Trees can tell us stories of who we are, what we value, what we fear and how we live.

The Rowan tree, Sorbus aucuparia, is one of my favourite examples of how trees have rooted themselves in people’s imaginations and everyday lives. In Greek mythology the Rowan originates from a tale of gods, demons and violence. When the goddess of youth, Hebe, loses her chalice from which she feeds the gods a liquid of everlasting life, she sends an eagle to battle the demons who have stolen it. Wounded in the ensuing fight, the eagle’s feathers and droplets of blood fell to earth and where they landed, Rowan trees began to grow. This lively story was the ancient Greeks way of explaining the Rowans feathery leaves and bright red berries.

In Britain, the Rowan has a long association with witches and enchantments and it was thought that this little tree could offer the best protection from any sinister magic that might be heading your way. The tiny 5-point star on the bottom of each berry was thought similar to the pentagram (an old protective symbol) and the fruit’s brilliant shade of ruby red was considered the best colour to ward off enchantment. So much faith did people have in the protective powers of nature that dwellings were often built next to Rowan trees and people would carry sprigs of Rowan on their person, hang them on their cattle and keep them close to their dairy lest a witch’s magic should poison it. Even today, you can still find old buildings in Yorkshire that have original witch posts which were handmade pillars of Rowan carved with protective symbols to keep a witch from crossing the hearth and harming the dwelling’s occupants.

These myths and meanings that people have woven around this unassuming little tree are fascinating in themselves but they are more than simple wives tales; they are part of our cultural history. They tell us of our ancestor’s suspicious nature and the precariousness of their lives where curdled milk or sick livestock could mean the loss of livelihood and potential life-threatening illness. It tells us of the awe people had for the natural world and their desire to understand their environment through the telling of stories.

In the current day and age, we may value the Rowan a little less for its protective properties against the supernatural but it is still a very popular tree to plant in gardens and streets. Perhaps we are still unconsciously a little superstitious after all? However, one thing you can be sure the Rowan won’t ward away is wildlife. Plant this little tree and I can promise that as late summer approaches, the birds will come searching for a feast of bright red berries. 

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