Sorbus aucuparia

Rowan is widely planted as an ornamental tree in gardens and along roadsides, because of its unfailing display of white blossom in May and scarlet berries in September. It is also called the Mountain ash, because of its ash-like compound leaf, though the two trees have no other features in common.

Rowan belongs to the natural family Rosaceae. and the flowers show the structure typical of that group. Each individual blossom has five green sepals, five white petals, nectaries to attract bees, a large number of stamens, and a centra! pistil composed of three to four carpels. In this Sorbus genus, the fruit is a soft, fleshy berry, containing several small, hard seeds embedded in fleshy pulp. Another characteristic feature of the Sorbus genus is the grouping of the flowers, and their resultant fruits, in clusters that are made up of one main stalk and many smaller ones. Rowan berries are too sour to be eaten raw, but if sugar is added they can be made into a tasty jelly, used as a seasoning for game.

Rowan is typically a small tree with a smooth purplish- or grey-brown bark. Its winter buds are exceptionally large, dark purple in colour, and end in a peculiar one-sided point; each scale is tufted with white hairs. The leaves are pinnately compound, with about seven leaflets set on each side of the central stalk, which ends in a terminal leaflet The leaflet edges are distincdy toothed; this feature, together with the fact that leaves and buds are alternately set on the twigs rather than opposite, enables one to tell the rowan apart from the ash tree quite easily.

Rowan berries are very attractive to birds, who swallow the small hard seeds along with the berries, and later void these seeds, often at a distance from the trees that grew them. This explains why rowans spring up naturally in odd inaccessible places, such as high rock faces, shingle banks, the ruins of old casdes, and even in the forks of old decaying trees. Each seedling carries two small oval seed-leaves above the soil, followed by simple leaves and then compound ones. Under cultivation, the seed has to be stored for 18 months in moist sand before it will sprout.

figure 100

Winter twig of rowan, showing the exceptionally large buds with oblique points; they are dark purple in colour (life size). Left a single bud about to burst; note hairy scale (X3),

Rowan logs have a dark purplish-brown heartwood with a pale yellowish-brawn sapwood layer around it The wood is strong, hard, tough, and easily worked, but the tree is too small to yield supplies acceptable to industry. It was formerly used in country crafts for furniture, tool handles, mallet heads, cart shafts, bowls and platters, and household utensils such as spinning wheels.

Rowan is very hardy and is found as far up the hills as any other tree, often in rocky clefts where grazing sheep cannot destroy the seedling or sapling dee. It was widely planted in the Scottish Highlands because of a curious though widespread belief that it would protect dwellings from witchcraft. It often survives amid the ruins of long-deserted crofting setdements. making it easier to spot them on the lonely hiiL The Gaelic name for this tree is caorunn. and the Welsh, cerddin. The name 'rowan' is derived from the old Norse r0n. This is linked with the word 'rune,' for the Norsemen carved their runic alphabet on tablets cleft from rowan wood, as well as on stone. They did this with a sharp tool called a reiss, and today some foresters still use a race to carve reference numbers and measured dimensions on the ends of logs. The genus Sorbus includes two other distinct trees that grow wild in Britain, and there are also a number of intermediate kinds that probably arise through these two kinds interbreeding with the rowan, or with each other. The Common whitebeam, Sorbus aria, which grows on dhalk and limestone soils, has green buds and simple, oval leaves with toothed edges and very conspicuous white undersides, clad in downy hairs. An intermediate race, called the Swedish whitebeam or Sorbus intermedia, has pin-nately lobed leaves with toothed edges; it is common in northeast Scotiand where it may arise from seeds brought from Scandinavia by immigrating birds, and in street plantings.

The Wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, which is found as a rarity in southern England and South Wales, has palmately lobed leaves - rather like those of a maple, and brown berries that are just sweet enough to eat (Plates 46 and 47). The name 'service' comes ftom Latin cerevisia meaning 'beer.' because the berries of a related tree were used to sweeten that drink. The leaf forms of the four mentioned species of Sorbus are shown in Figure 104,

Rowan Berries

figure 101

Rowan berries and foliage (life size).

FIGURE 102 (above)

Single rowan flower (X4). There are five sepals, five petals, many stamens and a three-styled pistil figure 103

Foliage and flower cluster of rowan; the compound leaves have toothed edges to their leaflet (life size).

figure 104

Leaves of the genus Sorbus, all Xj,

Top right whitebeam, S. aria.

Bottom right rowan, 5. aucuparia.

Top left; Wild service tree, S. torminalls.

Bottom left Swedish whitebeam. S. intermedia.

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