The Rowan or Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia is a member of the same family as the rose and is part of the large Sorbus genus (50+ distinctive species). They are highly variable with several regional sub species. The trees can be quite singular in appearance when shaped by wind on high moors and mountains.
The Rowan has an international mystical reputation. Witch Tree, Wicken, Witchbane or Witch Wood are amongst old names for Rowan and hint at these perceived mystical properties of the tree. ‘The Rowan (runa) is prominent in Norse mythology as the tree from which the first woman was made, (the first man being made from the ash tree). It was said to have saved the life of the god Thor by bending over a fast flowing river in the Underworld in which Thor was being swept away, and helping him back to the shore’. Trees for Life. A branch was often used over doorways or cattle byres to ward off the evil eye. In Celtic mythology Rowan is known as the Tree of Life and symbolises courage, wisdom and protection and in Ireland it is linked closely with fairies. Hindus used the word runa for rowan whose branches were used as as staves that were carved with rune symbols. In the UK the Rowan is known as a tree associated with witchcraft, protecting people and dwellings. Druids think the trees are sacred and are used for protection against sorcery and evil spirits. An example at the Pitt River museum in Oxford shows two sprigs of rowan tree wood tied with a red twine in the shape of a cross. This is believed to have been a common practice in some parts of Scotland to ward off spirits of the forest.
Catalogue of Sorbus specimens grown at Thorpe Perrow Yorkshire
An earlier post from Gardeners tips is now updated and augmented below: