I was sitting in my car waiting to collect my son and, as often happens, he was late. The car was parked beside a mature rowan tree drooping with scarlet berries and suddenly it was invaded by a flock of noisy, squabbling birds.
They were song thrushes, which are usually a well-mannered species. But something about this harvest of autumn fruit had gone to their heads and they were behaving out of character, more like raucous starlings than thrushes.
They were so excited and competitive that most of the berries got knocked off by their wings rather than eaten and soon the ground under the tree was red with them.
No doubt after dark, wood mice would arrive and gather up the fallen berries to store them underground for the hard days of winter. Even if the fruit rotted, each berry contains several nutritious seeds.
I wondered if the song thrushes were mounting a pre-emptive strike before the arrival of the winter migrant thrushes like fieldfares and redwings. Fieldfares, in particular, are aggressive birds that will defend a good berry bush against all comers.
Rowan trees are native and do grow wild around here, but they are not common. I’m not sure why this is, because the seed is spread by birds and the seedlings will tolerate almost all soil types and conditions, including acid peat. And the rowan’s ability to flourish way above the normal tree line is responsible for its alternative English name of mountain ash.
The reference to ash in the name is because both species have pinnate leaves, a number of leaflets arranged along a central stalk, which are superficially similar. But in the true ash, the leaflets are opposite on the stalk whereas in rowan they alternate.
But the rowan the thrushes were feasting in was not a wild tree, it had been planted. They have recently become popular park, garden and street trees because they are attractive, never grow too large and have pretty flowers and fruits.
But in Ireland, the practice of planting rowan trees seems also to have a very ancient history. Dr Charles Nelson says this tree was among the most sacred plants among pre-Christian people and Dr AT Lucas suggested this may have been reinforced by the Viking invasion, because they were also venerated in Old Norse culture.
Throughout the Middle Ages and up until at least the 18th century, planting a rowan tree beside your house would prevent the dead from rising, speed your hound, prevent fire-charming and generally protect the home, dairy and milk from evil.
If this seems useful to you and you want to plant your own rowan from seed, get out there immediately. The seeds germinate best when the berries are barely ripe, having just turned from green to red. Simply plant the berries in pots and leave them outside over winter, making sure they don’t dry out. You should get some seedlings next spring but be patient, even more will sprout the following spring.
This applies to wild rowan berries, there are a number of cultivated varieties that may not come true from seed.
They’re quite fast growing and soon you’ll end up with a tree that, in addition to all the benefits noted in the Middle Ages, will attract large numbers of thrushes and other wild birds to your garden in autumn and winter. In some winters, you may even get waxwings, which feed almost exclusively on rowan berries.
You could even try eating them yourself. I’ve always found them too bitter but apparently the sugar content increases when they’re frost bitten and they can be fermented into a type of perry or made into a sharp marmalade, which is a traditional accompaniment to venison.
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