November 21, 2010

Rowans resurgent

The rowans are hanging on to their bright berries, despite the wind and rain. One around the corner from us is completely leafless now, yet hung all over with clusters of orange-red berries. Like baubles they blaze out against the November sky.

A tiny rowan seedling in our garden, invisible for much of the year, declares itself now among the mud and dead leaves by its flaming orange leaves. A few inches high, it's protected from the whipping wind by the shrubs around it - although it won't hold on to its orange pennants forever. It probably grew from the dropping of a thrush or a blackbird who ate some berries last autumn, or the one before, and then came to sit on our fence. It could well be the offspring of the tree around the corner.

Rowans have long been considered sacred, and the Celts called it 'the wizard's tree'. It grows in churchyards and is planted to protect homesteads. Cutting down a rowan has long been thought to bring bad luck. And it's not just us, here in the UK; the rowan is thought to have protective powers against evil spirits right across Europe. In Finland, this is said of it:

In the yard there grows a rowan.
Thou with reverent care should'st tend it.
Holy is the tree there growing.
Holy likewise are its branches.
On its boughs the leaves are holy.
And its berries yet more holy. 

Also known as mountain ash, rowans will grow at higher altitudes than any other tree, sometimes as epiphyte, growing in the crevice of another tree. They are useful, with strong, durable wood and edible berries that are used to make rowan jelly. They make a fast-growing, compact and well-behaved street tree, too, with two seasons of interest (spring blossoms and autumn berries), and so are much planted in cities, where they nourishes the urban birds as they prepare for winter and, who knows, protect us city dwellers too.