The rowans are plants of the family Rosaceae, in the genus Sorbus, subgenus Sorbus. They are native throughout the cool temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, with the highest species diversity in the mountains of western China and the Himalaya, where numerous apomictic microspecies occur.
Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
This article is about the rowan tree; for other uses of the term, see Rowan (disambiguation)
Sorbus subgenus Sorbus
Sorbus Other subgenera
Sorbus aucuparia - European Rowan
Sorbus americana - American Rowan
Sorbus cashmeriana - Kashmir Rowan
Sorbus commixta - Japanese Rowan
Sorbus decora - Showy Rowan
Sorbus glabrescens - White-fruited Rowan
Sorbus hupehensis - Hubei Rowan
Sorbus sargentiana - Sargent's Rowan
Sorbus scalaris - Ladder Rowan
Sorbus sitchensis - Sitka Rowan
Sorbus vilmoriniana - Vilmorin's Rowan
Plus several other species
Sorbus subgenus Aria
Rowans are mostly small deciduous trees 10-20 m tall, though a few are shrubs. The leaves are arranged alternately, and are pinnate, with 11-35 leaflets. The flowers are borne in dense corymbs; each flower is creamy white, and 5-10 mm across with five petals.
The fruit is a small pome 4-8 mm diameter, bright red in most species, but pink, yellow or white in some Asian species. The fruit are soft and juicy, which makes them a very good food for birds, particularly waxwings and thrushes, which then distribute the rowan seeds in their droppings. Rowan is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Mottled Pug and Double-striped Pug.
The best known species is European Rowan Sorbus aucuparia, a small tree typically 4-12 m tall growing in a variety of habitats throughout northern Europe and in mountains in southern Europe and southwest Asia. Its berries are a favourite food for many birds and are a traditional wild-collected food in Britain and Scandinavia. It is one of the hardiest European trees, occurring to 71° north in arctic Norway, and has also become widely naturalised in northern North America.
North American native rowans include the American Rowan Sorbus americana and Showy Rowan Sorbus decora in the east and Sitka Rowan Sorbus sitchensis in the west.
The greatest diversity of form as well as the largest number of species is in Asia, with very distinctive species such as Sargent's Rowan Sorbus sargentiana with large leaves 20-35 cm long and 15-20 cm broad and very large corymbs with 200-500 flowers, and at the other extreme, Small-leaf Rowan Sorbus microphylla with leaves 8-12 cm long and 2.5-3 cm broad. While most are trees, the Dwarf Rowan Sorbus reducta is a low shrub to 50 cm tall. Several of the Asian species are widely cultivated as ornamental trees.
For other Sorbus species, see whitebeam (Sorbus subgenus Aria) and the genus article Sorbus.
Etymology, and other names
The name "rowan" is derived from the Old Norse name for the tree, raun or rogn. Linguists believe that the Norse name is ultimately derived from a proto-Germanic word raudnian meaning "getting red" and which referred to the red foliage and red berries in the autumn. Rowan is one of the most familiar wild trees in the British Isles, and has acquired numerous English folk names. The following are recorded folk names for the rowan: Delight of the eye (Luisliu), Mountain ash, Quickbane, Quickbeam, Quicken (tree), Quickenbeam, Ran tree, Roan tree, Roden-quicken, Roden-quicken-royan, Round wood, Royne tree, Rune tree, Sorb apple, Thor's helper, Whispering tree, Whitty, Wicken-tree, Wiggin, Wiggy, Wiky, Witch wood, Witchbane, Witchen, Witchen tree. Many of these can be easily linked to the mythology and folklore surrounding the tree, as discussed below. In Gaelic, it is Rudha-an (red one).
One particularly confusing name for the rowan, still used in North America, is "mountain ash", which implies incorrectly that it is a species of ash (Fraxinus). The name arises from the superficial similarity in leaf shape of the two trees; in fact, the rowan does not belong to the ash family, but is closely related to the apples and hawthorns in the rose family.
Rowans are excellent small ornamental trees for parks, gardens and wildlife areas. Several of the Chinese species, such as White-fruited rowan (S. glabrescens) are popular for their unusual berry colour, and Sargent's rowan (S. sargentiana) for its exceptionally large clusters of fruit. They are very attractive to fruit-eating birds, which is reflected in the old name "bird catcher". The wood is dense and used for carving and turning and for tool handles and walking sticks.
Mythology & folklore
The European rowan (S. aucuparia) has a long tradition in European mythology and folklore. It was thought to be a magical tree and protection against malevolent beings.
The density of the rowan wood makes it very usable for walking sticks
and magician's staffs that additionally carry protective qualities for
safe night journeys. This is why druid staffs, for example, have traditionally been made out of rowan wood. The magic power that is ascribed to rowan extends beyond simple protection, for it is said that rowan wood will increase one's psychic powers, and its branches were often used in dowsing rods and magical wands.
Further, rowan was carried on vessels to avoid storms, kept in houses to guard against lightning, and even planted on graves to keep the deceased from haunting. It is also used to protect one from witches or as wood to fuel the fire to burn witches (Frazer, p. 718). Often birds' droppings contain rowan seeds, and such droppings if they land in a fork or hole where old leaves have accumulated in a larger tree, such as an oak or a maple, may result in a rowan growing as an epiphyte on the larger tree. Such a rowan is called a "flying rowan" and is especially potent against witches and their magic, and as a counter-charm against sorcery (Frazer, p. 813-814). Rowan protects against enchantment and is used to make rune staves (Murray, p. 26), for metal divining, and to protect cattle from harm by arraching sprigs to their sheds.
Leaves and berries are added to divination incense for better scrying.
Fresh rowan berry juice is usable as a laxative, gargle for sore throats, inflamed tonsils, hoarseness, and as a source of vitamins A and C. Rowan berry jam will remedy diarrhea. An infusion of the berries will benefit hemorrhoids and strangury . The bark can also be used as an astringent for loose bowels and vaginal irritations. Rowan is also used for eye irritations , spasmic pains in the uterus, heart/bladder problems, neuralgia, gout, and waist constrictions.
Rowan berries as food
Rowan berries are usually too astringent to be palatable when raw, but can be made into an excellent, slightly bitter, jelly which in England is traditionally eaten as an accompaniment to game. The berries can also be a substitute for coffee beans, and have many uses in alcoholic beverages: to flavour liqueurs and cordials, to produce country wine, and to flavour ale. Rowan cultivars with superior fruit for human food use are available but not common; mostly the fruits are gathered from wild trees growing on public lands.
- Sorbic acid, an acid that takes its name from the latin name of the rowan, sorbus.
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