Tree Lore: Rowan
by Susa M. Black
Rowan - Luis -
Family: Rosaceae (Rose Family)
Folk Names: Mountain Ash, Quicken Tree, Witch Tree
Celtic Ogham: Luis
Old Celtic: Kair
Rowan is a small deciduous tree, found high up in the mountains; it is sometimes called ‘The Lady of the Mountain’ (Paterson). Although it prefers the heights, it can grow anywhere and I have seen rowan planted in the lowlands as well (see above picture of Rowan in Glastonbury, England).
The shape of the tree resembles an Ash, however it is not related. A member of the Rose family, Rowan is related to Rose, Apple, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and Cherry, and grows no higher than 30-40 feet. It can live up to two hundred years.
The leaves grow in pairs and are long and slender. In May, Rowan blossoms into clusters of little creamy white flowers. The tree berries in autumn with a bright red fruit beloved by birds. The Rowan grows profusely in the Highlands of Scotland, and its’ bright red berry is said to inspire the red color of the tartan plaids. (Paterson)
The Rowan berry is bitter, but when mixed with sugar or other sweet fruits, is excellent in pies, jelly or jam. Rowan berries are also made into juice and wine. The berries provide vitamins A and C, carotin, pectin and essential oil, and stimulate the immune system. (Hageneder)
Medicinally, Rowan berries are a laxative, and can also be used for sore throats, inflamed tonsils, hoarseness, even diarrhoea. A decoction from the bark is used as an astringent. (Hopman)
The Rowan tree is one of the most sacred trees in Scottish folk tradition. ‘Scottish tradition does not allow the use of the tree’s timber, bark, leaves or flowers, nor the cutting of these, except for sacred purposes under special conditions.’ (Fife)
Rowan is one of the trees associated with Saint Brighid, the Celtic patroness of the arts, healing, smithing, spinning and weaving. Spindles and spinning wheels were traditionally made of Rowan in Scotland and Ireland. Rowan trees planted near stone circles in Scotland were especially powerful. Scottish Fairies were said to hold their celebrations within stone circles protected by Rowan trees. Modern interpretations of the Celtic Ogham place Rowan, called Luis, as the sacred tree of February.
Rowan twigs were placed above doorways and barns to protect the inhabitants against misfortune and evil spirits. It was one of the trees sacred to Druids and used for protection against sorcery and evil spirits. The Druids burnt Rowan on funeral pyres, for it also symbolized death and rebirth. The Druid Ovates and Seers burnt Rowan in rites of divination and to invoke spirits, and Druids used Rowan wood in rites of purification. Ancient Bards considered the Rowan the ‘Tree of Bards’, bringing the gift of inspiration. Rowan is one of the nine sacred woods burnt in the Druids’ Beltaine fire. Rowan is also associated with dragons and serpents - sacred Rowans were once guarded by dragons.
In America, the Rowan is usually referred to as Mountain Ash. Most sources maintain that the word ‘Rowan’ is derived from the Norse word rune, which means charm or secret, and runa, which is Sanskrit for magician. However according to Elizabeth Pepper, Rowan is a Scottish word, derived from the Gaelic rudha-an, which means ‘the red one’.
Rune staves were often cut from the rowan tree for amulets by the Norse people who invaded Scotland. In the Christian era, the twigs have been used for protection against witches, sorcery, negative magic and the Evil Eye. Twigs tied in a cross with red thread are affixed to doors and barns to keep the inhabitants and livestock from being enchanted, saying this charm, ‘Rowan tree and red thread, will put witches to their speed’ . Walking sticks made of rowan are used to protect the user from the spirits of the woods.
Rowan is also called the Witch Tree, or Wicken Tree, and can be used for divining precious metals, just as hazel can divine water. Witches used Rowan to increase their psychic powers, for spells of healing, success, protection, and often used the wood for their magic wands.
Practicing folk magic was a sign of witchcraft to the 17th Century Scots. Margaret Barclay was brought to trial for witchcraft in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1618. The damning evidence found in her possession was a Rowan charm – a Rowan twig tied with red thread for protection. (Pepper)
Gaelic Dictionary by Malcolm MacLennan, Acair and Mercat Press Publishers, Edinburg, 1979
Warriors and Guardians: Native Highland Trees by Hugh Fife, Argyll Publishing, 1994
The Spirit of the Trees, Science, Symbiosis and Inspiration, by Fred Hageneder, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 2000
The Heritage of Trees, History, Culture and Symbolism, by Fred Hageneder, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 2001
Tree Wisdom, The Definitive Guidebook, by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, Thorsons Publishing, San Francisco, 1996
The Wisdom of Trees, by Jane Gifford, Sterling Publishing, New York, 2001
Celtic Tree Mysteries, Secrets of the Ogham, by Steve Blamires, Llewelyn Publications, St. Paul, 1997
The Book of Ogham, the Celtic Tree Oracle, by Edred Thorsson, Llewelyn Publications, St. Paul, 1992
Ogham, the Celtic Oracle of the Trees, by Paul Rhys Mountfort, Destiny Books, Rochester, Vermont, 2001
Celtic Tree Magic, by Elizabeth Pepper, The Witches Almanac, Ltd., Rhode Island, 1996
Tree Medicine, Tree Magic, by Ellen Evert Hopman, Phoenix Publishing, Custer, WA, 1991