ROWAN OR MOUNTAIN ASH TREE: HEALTH BENEFITS, USES AND MYTHS OF MOUNTAIN ASH: ROWAN BERRY JELLY RECIPE
THE ROWAN TREE OR MOUNTAIN ASH, SORBUS AUCUPARIA
The Rowan tree is also called the Mountain Ash because it grows at high altitudes and varieties of it can be found in the mountains of western China and the Himalayas. It isn’t an ash tree but is so called because the shape of its leaves is similar to those of the ash. The Sorbus americana has much the same properties as the European Sorbus aucuparia, or Pyrus aucuparia as it is also called. It is a member of the rose family of plants and is closely related to the crab apple and pear trees. The berries are called pomes as the seeds are surrounded by an endocarp around which is the fleshy fruit; in this way the berries are similar to loquats and quinces.
Mountain Ash (Aberpennar) is also a town in South Wales in Rhondda Cynon, which is mountainous, and the Mountain Ash grows wild in the Welsh mountains. In earlier times the Welsh brewed beer with rowan berries and John Evelyn wrote that it was an “incomparable drink”.Unfortunately the recipe is said to be lost. The Irish flavoured their mead with the berries while the Scots made them into a spirit. It is also cultivated as an ornamental tree. Rowan berries are not poisonous and can be made into jams and a tart jelly (see recipe below) which goes well with game and wild fowl.
The tree can grow to a height of 30 metres and can be 20 metres in diameter. The fresh and dried berries are used in medicine as is the bark. In times of scarcity, the berries have been dried and ground into flour. The bark and berries can be made into a black dye, and this was used by the Druids to colour the garments they wore in their lunar ceremonies. They also had staffs of rowan wood, and the tree is the symbol of the second month of the old Celtic tree calendar (January 21st – February 17th). It was the wood from this tree which was used for runes, and in Norse mythology we are told that the first woman was made from the Rowan tree, while the first man was made from the Alder.
Greek mythology tells a different tale however; Hebe the daughter of Zeus and Hera was the cup-bearer of the gods and one day the cup of her father Zeus, fell into the hands of a demon. Zeus was wrathful and sent an eagle to retrieve his cup from the demon. In the battle that followed, wherever the eagle’s feathers landed on earth, a Rowan tree grew, and the blood-red berries are from the eagle’s blood. This myth also explains its feather-like leaves.
It was believed that the tree offered great protection against witchcraft and people would wear twigs or rowan tied with a red thread, to protect themselves from enchantment. There is an ancient proverb: - “Rowan tree and red thread, put the witches’ tine to speed.” (Witches would hasten away from the tree.) It could be that the five pointed star shape under each berry was believed to protect from evil, as this pentagram sign is believed to be magical.
In Wales there is an old superstition that if you cut down a rowan tree, then the faeries that were imprisoned in it would wreak their vengeance not only on the person who felled it but also on the whole community. The tree is not to be cut with a knife, but the twigs can be used to divine where metal lies in the earth.
Because of its white flowers, like the elder tree and the hawthorn, it is believed to be a goddess tree and in Iceland it is thought that the bare tree when covered in frost in winter it looks as though it is covered in stars, so is a moon-tree. Moon trees were decorated with lights and fruit in mid-winter to remind people that even in those dark days there was hope of a brighter spring. Some people think that these moon trees were the forerunners of the Christmas tree tradition.
In Northern Europe the ‘flying rowan trees’, those rooted in rocky clefts but not appearing to be rooted in the earth, gave a special protection against witchcraft. There is also a myth that the Rowan was the first tree and that all other trees are descended from it.
In traditional medicine, the ripe berries are made into a decoction (boiled in water and allowed to cool) and used as a gargle for sore throats. This is also supposed to be good for piles as it has astringent properties. At one time the berries were used as a treatment for scurvy because of their high vitamin C content. A decoction of the bark is said to be good for diarrhoea. The bark has astringent qualities as do all parts of the tree, and has been used in the tanning industry.
Before they ripen the berries contain tartaric acid, and on ripening, citric and malic acid, they also contain carotene and also xylitol which is a sugar substitute used in diabetic diets, which is found in plums, raspberries and strawberries. It has been found to inhibit the growth of pneumococci and so is effective against some respiratory ailments.
Little research has actually been carried out on the properties of rowan berries, but they are said to be good for sinusitis.
Wood from the Rowan tree is used to make poles, hoops and barrels, and the trees are useful to protect young oak saplings in plantations as they grow quickly to 10 feet and do not give too much shade, so they protect the saplings until they are strong enough to brave the elements.
ROWAN BERRY JELLY
1 kg rowan berries, cleaned and washed
400 ml water
Put the berries and water in a pan and cook on a low heat until they start to simmer.
Remove from the heat and allow to steep overnight.
Strain the liquid through a piece of muslin or cheesecloth. There should be about a litre of juice.
Add the pectin and follow the instructions on the packet.
This can be stored in jars in a cool dark place and used to serve with game or wild fowl.
This has Taste and is a Treat.