Sandy’s Garden ... Rowan

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

A popular, local winter weather precursor is the idea that the bountiful mountain ash berry bushes found in the Pacific Northwest is a sure sign the coming snow will be heavy.

Biologically speaking, there isn’t a way for the rowan tree to “know” snowpack in the Cascades will be high. A high berry yield only means the growing season was long. On the years you see plenty of mountain ash berries, you can be confident that the summer was been warm and wet. But don’t put any confidence in the idea that the coming winter will see more snow than normal.’ That quotation comes from News Channel 21 on KTVZ, an NBC-affiliated television station licensed to Bend, Oregon, United States and serving Central Oregon. It broadcasts a high definition digital signal on virtual and UHF channel 21 from a transmitter in the city on Awbrey Butte west of U.S. Highway 97.

The mountain ash is better known in Scotland as the rowan, but the belief in the tree’s ability to forecast the coming winter is also found on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. And, I need hardly add, it’s no more true on the European side of the Atlantic than it is on the North American side. But the supposed meteorological abilities of the rowan are just one of its alleged attributes. Greek mythology tells how the lovely young goddess Hebe … the goddess of youth … worked as a waitress to the gods, serving them the ambrosia which conferred longevity or immortality upon whoever consumed it. Her communion cup was stolen by demons, who were slain by an eagle sent by the gods to recover the goblet. Droplets of blood and some of the eagle’s feathers which fell to the ground during the ensuing fight produced the first rowan tree, with its feather-shaped leaves and blood-red berries.

Our own ancestors planted rowan trees close to their dwellings to protect themselves and their animals against witches, partly because red was considered the best colour for fighting evil forces - think of the cross of Saint George, England’s patron saint; and I must confess that I have a rowan tree growing close to my house, although I insist that I only planted it there as a purely decorative feature. ‘Rowan tree and red thread / will put witches to their tide’ … the second line meaning ‘will put witches to flight’ … runs an old couplet; and it, or variations of it, occurs in Norwegian folklore as well. Norse mythology also links the rowan with a deity, telling of how the god Thor was swept away by a rushing river in the Underworld but was saved by a rowan tree bending over the waters to let the god clutch its branches and then helping him back to the safety of the shore.

A development of this mysterious propensity for the rowan to be proactive in offering protection in times of danger was the belief that a rowan twig carried by a traveller offered protection against witchcraft and other forms of evil during the journey. And throughout the Celtic fringe of the British Isles, from the north of Scotland to the west of Cornwall, many of our predecessors made small, equal-armed crucifixes by binding two rowan twigs together with red thread and never leaving home without this protective charm.

Elizabeth Pepper, the American author of the very first edition of ‘The Witches’ Almanac’ … a witty, literate, and sophisticated publication that appeals to general readers as well as hard-core Wiccans … which was first published in New England in 1971, attributes the origin of the name ‘rowan’ to Gaeldom, being derived from the Gaelic rudha-an, which means ‘the red one’. Well, I can’t comment on that claim: but I don’t believe that my rowan tree’s now-passing … but once magnificent … display of red berries foretells a severe winter.