I’ve spent many years researching and writing about the uses people make of plants
and what plants mean to the people who use them.

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Rowan © Aaron Parker

Rowan - Sorbus aucuparia  Photo: © Aaron Parker

In the Autumn the rowan comes into its own with magnificent displays of scarlet berries.

Attractive to many birds - especially redwings, waxwings and other members of the thrush family - and also consumed by people (today generally in the form of preserves), it was perhaps because of the striking red of its berries that the rowan is said to have been sacred to the Celts and was long regarded as a tree of protection.

Rowans were once commonly planted around graveyards and households as 'guardian' trees and their wood was used in the construction of yokes for oxen and to make plough handles in the belief that this would both protect the plough man and drive evil spirits from the fields. Until the end of the 19th century, other agricultural tools, as well as cattle prods and the handles of whips, walking sticks, babies' cradles, coffins and boundary markers might also be made of or could include rowan wood, all to help deter evil spirits. No other plant was considered as powerful for protecting milk from the 'evil eye' - thought to make milk curdle - so twigs or sprays of rowan were hung up in dairies or nailed to cattle stalls, while milk churns and stirrers were made at least in part from rowan timber too. Rowan twigs might be entwined around the horns of cattle or around their necks for further protection from harm, particularly around Mid-Summer's eve, when the spirit world was thought to be particularly active.

Also known as the mountain ash because of the similarity of its leaves to those of ash trees, the rowan, a hardy, relatively small tree, comfortable at high altitudes and most common in the north and west of the UK, belongs to the rose family.

See: C. Howkins, Rowan: Tree of Protection, 1996
C. Howkins, A Dairymaids Flora, 1994
R. Mabey, Flora Britannica, 1996

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