The Rowan Tree. Sorbus acuparia






The rowan tree Sorbus acuparia is a graceful relatively  small tree often misleadingly called the

mountain ash. For the rowan, being a member of the Rosaceae family is in no way related to the ash tree which is a member of the Olive family Oleaceae. The name mountain ash probably derives from the fact that this species may be found high on mountains and that its foliage is superficially similar to that of the common ash tree.

What beauty this tree portrays when, just after the leaves unfurl, the flowers begin to form, before bursting into bloom towards the end of May. Because it is a relatively small tree it often finds favour with gardeners who are privileged enough to have space for such a beautiful tree. Many cultivated varieties have berries of differing colours to the wild species, for instance there are pink, yellow and even white coloured berries that adorn the trees well into winter.

The name rowan is thought to derive from an old Norse word meaning a charm, it alludes to the tree being considered a friend of man, warding off evil spirits and goblins that prevailed in the mind of our ancestors. The Celts called the tree the "Wizards" tree and associated it with the spirit of life, beauty, creativity and strength. They referred to the rowan as "Lady of the mountain", alluding to it being one of the last trees to be found on the "tree line" on mountains, indeed they may be encountered up to the height of 3000 feet.

Over the passage of time the rowan as acquired many country titles which include the quick beam, wichen tree and sorb apple. They were often planted near to houses and branches were suspended over door frames to keep out evil spirits. In a similar vein they were also planted in church yards to stop evil spirits from disturbing the good souls of the departed. The Vikings carried rowan wood as a lucky charm when entering upon long sea journeys.

Get to know the Rowan tree.


 Above the Rowan in full bloom.

Sorbus acuparia is a small tree attaining the height of 4-12m. It is a very accommodating tree letting light through the canopy allowing ground flora to flourish beneath it, and, in the heat of summer affording them light shade. The bark is of a pale grey colour and smooth.

As stated the foliage has a superficial resemblance to that of the common ash, both are composed of leaflets, but as you can see from the photograph below there are differences to observe.

The rowan normally has around seven pairs of leaflets while in the case of the common ash they usually produce just four pairs. The leaflets of the rowan are more compact with sharper teeth along their margins. The more oval shaped leaflets of the ash tree are more loosely arranged and tend to have a much sharper point at the tips. The "whole" leaf of the rowan are arranged alternately on the branches and twigs of the tree. The leaflets are 2-6cm long. The under surface is of a grey-green colour. The leaf stalk is furrowed and hairy.                                  photo-Dal

Photograph above--- left the leaf of the rowan on the right the leaf of the common ash. Both species have a single terminal leaflet.

FLOWERS----the flowers are white about 1 cm across and have five petals. These individual flowers grow in large clusters about 15 cm wide. Each tree produces a plethora of clusters. Beneath the flower the sepals are triangular with glandular hairs. The petals are oval or round and 4-5 mm long.                                                                         photo-Dal

The flowers are succeeded by the berries {known as pommes}. they are small and rounded 9-10mm broad and usually containing three seeds. They are greenish yellow at first becoming the orange-red colour we are familiar with. They are a great source of food for birds, particularly those of the thrush family, including the winter visiting redwing and fieldfare. The berries remain on the tree long after the leaves have fallen.

The species name of acuparia pronounced ow-kew-pah-ree-a, loosely translated means bird catcher and allude to the berries attracting birds. { see Latin names explained}

The wood of the rowan is strong and flexible of a yellow -grey colour. It was utilised to make cart wheels, hoops for barrels, watermill fixtures and items such as plough pins. In the north of the country the rowan was used to create long bows while in the south the ash and yew were favoured for such weapons. It was also greatly used to make small carvings in the same way as lime wood.

Medicinal and culinary uses.

 The berries which are often regarded as being poisonous are in fact edible, however, my personal opinion is that they do not taste very nice. When fresh the berries contain parasorbic acid which may irritate the kidneys. Once they have been boiled or dried it changes into a non-toxic sorbic acid and the taste greatly improves. They have a high vitamin C content along with tannins, sugars and pectin. After being boiled the berries are a main ingredient of jellies, syrups and compotes regularly produced by country people in days gone by.

Rowan compote is still regularly produced in England  as an accompaniment to game dishes. The berries should be dried quickly so as to keep the colour. They are often used in conjunction with elderberries.

Eating a spoon of rowan jam a day is said to stimulate the appetite. The juice of the berries was employed as a gargle for sore throats. The dried berries were infused to make a health tea which was said to be mildly laxative.

However, some herbalists believe that the berries should be eaten with restraint even when they have been boiled or dried.

The bark was employed as a gargle against thrush. All in all the rowan was a beneficial tree as a species that looks fine producing berries for birds during the winter, along with food and medicine for our benefit and the bonus of being a beautiful and charming tree.

It is well for readers who are thinking of using herbs for medicinal or culinary purposes to visit the link WILD HERB ADVISE. 


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