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A Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) beside a road in Ireland

A Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) beside a road in Ireland

Rowan trees are beautiful little trees which are part of the rose family.  The tree is are also known as the sorbus trees (the genus is named Sorbus” from a Latin word meaning red brown), the quickbeam,  or the mountain ash–although they are not closely related to the true ash trees.  Because of their delicate beauty and great hardiness, rowan trees are a great favorite of landscape gardeners.  The trees are covered with pretty five-petaled flowers in May and the flowers mature into large bunches of beautiful red or white berries in late summer.  Rowan berries are too tart for human tastes when uncooked (plus the raw berries can be dangerous if eaten in huge quantities) however they can be cooked to make jams, jellies, chutneys, and teas.  Birds are particularly drawn to the berries (which is the primary way that rowan trees distribute their seeds).  Rowan trees have alternating pinnate leaves of a handsome medium green.

Rowan tree in bloom

Rowan tree in bloom

Rowan trees of different species have spread through the northern hemisphere, however they seem to have originated in the mountains of west China (which is where the greatest genetic diversity of Rowan species is found).  The berries of some of these Chinese species can be orange, pink, cream, or white.

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In addition being loved by landscapers for their prettiness, Rowan trees have a special place in European folklore. Rowan trees were connected with the pre-Christian Scandinavian/Germanic goddess Sif, a golden haired beauty who was goddess of fertility, family, wedlock, grain, and beer (and basically everything worthwhile).  Even after northern Europeans stopped worshipping Sif, the rowan tree kept its magical associations.  Throughout the middle ages it was believed to prevent witches, bad luck and lightning.  Sailors wore rowan charms and travelers invoked it for luck.

The Goddess Sif with a Rowan Bough and a Beer

The Goddess Sif with a Rowan Bough and a Beer

The first house my parents bought when I was three was built by an Irish builder/developer who planted a rowan tree in the front yard.  That tree featured vividly in my childhood (the berries were perfect for playing and throwing) and I still dream about it sometimes.  It stands beautiful red and green near the center of the garden of my imagination.

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