The Rowan is today one of the most common trees in British suburbia due to its hardiness, its indifference to soil type, the fact that other plants will grow beneath it and the absence of the need for pruning. It has many other names including Mountain Ash and while it is not any relation to the ash tree its leaves do have some similarity to it and it will grow in the wildest and most exposed of situations. The word Rowan has connections to the Old Norse word "runa" meaning a charm and in earlier times the word "runa" in ancient Sanskrit meant magician and indeed it has been highly prized as a protective wood since ancient times.
Lightfoot, co-author of Flora Scotica, writes of the Rowan in the late 1800's, "It may to this day be observed to grow more frequently than any other trees in the neighbourhood of those druidical circles of stones so often seen in the north of Britain; and the superstitious still continue to retain great veneration for it, which was undoubtedly handed down to them from early antiquity. They believe that any small part if this tree, carried about them, will prove a sovereign charm against all the dire effects of enchantment and witchcraft. The cattle also, as well as themselves, are supposed to be preserved by it from evil; for the dairy-maid will not forget to drive them from the shealings, or summer pastures, with a rod of the Rowan-tree, which she carefully lays over the door of the sheal-boothy or summer-house, and drives them home again with the same. In Strathspey, they make, on the 1st May, a hoop with the wood of this tree, and in the evening and morning cause the sheep and lambs to pass through it." Other beliefs include the use of rowan crosses tied with red thread as protective charms for homes and a rowan whip or branch is said to break the spell of an enchanted horse.
The Rowan can attain heights of up to fifty feet if allowed to grow without other woodland competition but more commonly reaches little more than twenty feet. In southern Britain it was chiefly grown as an underwood and used to nurse young oaks and other timber trees. However once these trees outgrow it, they begin to screen it from its share of air and light leading eventually to its demise. The Reverend Johns in his 1903 book "The Forest Trees of Britain" says of the Rowan, "On the hills of Cheshire and Derbyshire it does not often attain a great size; in such situations an entire tree, with roots, leaves, and flowers, is sometimes found not more than nine inches high." In May or June it produces dense clusters of creamy-white fragrant flowers not dissimilar to the hawthorn but much smaller. The fruits are like miniature apples, the size of holly berries, and bright scarlet in colour with yellow flesh. They ripen in September and are highly attractive to birds such as thrushes and blackbirds (hence it name of Fowler's or Birdcatcher's Service). The seeds have a leathery coating to protect them from the action of digestive fluids and when passed through a bird's intestines actually germinate far quicker than if sown by hand when the seeds will lie in the earth for some eighteen months before shooting.
The 17th century writer John Evelyn in his book "Sylva" says, "Ale and beer brewed with these berries, being ripe, is an incomparable drink, familiar in Wales" and in Scotland a spirit said to possess a fine flavour was distilled from them. Its timber was favoured by turners and as a coppice its uses were the same as for hazel and ash. In the days of archery it was ranked next to yew as a material for bows and its hard fine grain makes it still favoured for walking sticks. Rowan berries also have many medicinal uses including as a gargle for sore throats, to treat scurvy and mild cases of constipation, diarrhoea and kidney disorders. One of its fruit sugars is sometimes extracted and given intravenously to reduce pressure in the eyeball in the treatment of glaucoma. Other names for the Rowan include Cock-drunks and Hen-drunks (from the belief that they were both intoxicated by eating the berries), Quickbeam, White Ash, Witchwood, Witchen and Wiggen. Quickbeam is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "cwic" meaning alive and alludes to the constant movement of its foliage.