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Fossil range: {{{fossil_range}}}
European Rowan fruit
European Rowan fruit
Plant Info
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Scientific classification
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Kingdom: Plantae
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Division: Magnoliophyta
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Class: Magnoliopsida
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Superorder: {{{superordo}}}
Order: Rosales
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Superfamily: {{{superfamilia}}}
Family: Rosaceae
Subfamily: Maloideae
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Tribe: {{{tribus}}}
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Genus: Sorbus
Subgenus: Sorbus
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Binomial name
Trinomial name
Type Species
Sorbus subgenus Sorbus

Sorbus aucuparia - European Rowan
Sorbus americana - American mountain ash
Sorbus cashmiriana - Kashmir Rowan
Sorbus commixta - Japanese Rowan
Sorbus decora - Showy mountain ash
Sorbus glabrescens - White-fruited Rowan
Sorbus hupehensis - Hubei Rowan
Sorbus matsumurana
Sorbus sargentiana - Sargent's Rowan
Sorbus scalaris - Ladder Rowan
Sorbus sitchensis - Sitka mountain ash
Sorbus vilmoriniana - Vilmorin's Rowan
Plus several other species
Sorbus subgenus Aria
Sorbus Other subgenera</td></tr>


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.

Rowans are mostly small deciduous trees 10-20 m tall, though a few are shrubs. The leaves are arranged alternately, and are pinnate, with (8)-11-35 leaflets. The flowers are borne in dense corymbs; each flower is creamy white, and 5-10 mm across with five petals.

White-fruited Rowan Sorbus glabrescens, a Chinese species with pure white fruit

The fruit is a small pome 4-8 mm diameter, bright orange or 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 - see list of Lepidoptera which feed on Sorbus.

The best known species is the 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 Vardø in arctic Norway, and has also become widely naturalized in northern North America.

North American native rowans include the American mountain ash Sorbus americana and Showy mountain ash Sorbus decora in the east and Sitka mountain ash 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.



Ripening European Rowan berries.

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 staves. This is why druid staffs, for example, have traditionally been made out of rowan wood, and its branches were often used in dowsing rods and magic wands. 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 was also used to protect one from witches [1]. Often birds' droppings contain rowan seeds, and if such droppings land in a fork or hole where old leaves have accumulated on a larger tree, such as an oak or a maple, they may result in a rowan growing as an epiphyte on the larger tree. Such a rowan is called a "flying rowan" and was thought of as especially potent against witches and their magic, and as a counter-charm against sorcery [2]. Rowan's alleged protection against enchantment made it perfect to be used in making rune staves (Murray, p. 26), for metal divining, and to protect cattle from harm by attaching sprigs to their sheds.

In Finland and Sweden, the number of berries on the trees was used as a predictor of the snow cover during winter. While this has been considered mere superstition, one hypothesis has been presented that genuine efficacy might stem from the causal connection of amount of berries and the amount of rainfall during summer. While in general no absolute connection between summer rainfall and snowfall in winter can be made, it is conceivable that in certain specific microclimates there might be some predictive value therein. This interpretation is supported by the fact that in some geographical areas, rowans replete with berries were thought to signify a thick snow cover, in others many berries meant very little snow.

Leaves and berries were added to divination incense for better scrying.

Folk-medicinal uses

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 on Prince Edward Island.

Rowan berries can be made into a slightly bitter jelly which in Britain is traditionally eaten as an accompaniment to game, and into jams and other preserves, on their own, or with other fruits. 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.

Rowan berries contain sorbic acid, an acid that takes its name from the Latin name of the genus Sorbus. Raw berries also contain parasorbic acid (about 0.4%-0.7% in the European rowan[3]), which causes indigestion and can lead to kidney damage, but heat treatment (cooking, heat-drying etc.) and, to a lesser extent, freezing, neutralises it, by changing it to the benign sorbic acid. Luckily, they are also usually too astringent to be palatable when raw. Collecting them after first frost (or putting in the freezer) cuts down on the bitter taste as well.

Etymology, and other names

Rowan flowers

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, Round tree, 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. In Gaelic, it is Rudha-an (red one, pronounced quite similarly to English "rowan").

One somewhat confusing name for the rowan, used in both the UK and North America, is "mountain ash", which implies 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.

Notes and references

  1. Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, p620, Papermac Edition, 1987, ISBN 0-333-43430-7
  2. Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, p702, Papermac Edition, 1987, ISBN 0-333-43430-7
  3. O Raspe, C Findlay, AL Jacquemart. Sorbus aucuparia L. The Journal of Ecology, 2000

See also

External links


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