Snapshot—The witches' tree

Chad took this photograph just down the far corner of our street of a large Northern mountain ash or rowan (Sorbus decora) covered in red berries and snow. I like this native tree very much and often pick my route to and from the apartment to walk by it. Its white spring flowers have a strange, funky scent. Then in fall and winter, it's covered with little dangling clusters of reddish-orange berries. The fruit—a big crop this year—seems to persist for most of the winter even though I've read that the birds love them.

The European species of rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is said to ward off witches because it is the tree on which the Devil hung his mother. How sad, I hadn't realized he had done that. The wood is also traditionally used to make druid staffs. As I write this I remember that I also had an American rowan at the corner of my block when we lived in west Chelsea in the 1990s. Hmmm. What can it all mean?

I also remember once doing a story on a very attractive, very fancy lady in Scotland for House & Garden. The photographer and I saw a beautiful rowan tree covered in berries near her castle and we asked if she would stand under it for a portrait for the shoot. She emphatically refused saying, "Absolutely not! My stepchildren already think I'm a witch so there's no way I'm going to be pictured standing under a rowan!" Don't you just love Europeans? Seems to me that this would have been valuable pictorial proof that indeed she was not a witch otherwise she couldn't have gone near it.

I love learning common plant names and rowans have them in spades. Such a amount of nicknames usually signifies an important and useful plant that has captured the human imagination over the centuries. Here they are:

Delight of the eye, Quickbane, Quickbeam, Quicken, 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 and finally Wittern tree.

We've been having a lot of snow in NYC this winter. It's always beautiful, that is if it doesn't hang around on the ground for more than a day or two. Folklore says that a heavy crop of rowan berries is supposed to forecast a hard winter by the way... Well I guess I'll just put on another Kate Bush cd and get back to writing.

12 comments:

Genie of the Shell said...

Wow, that's beautiful! I didn't know this lore about the rowan tree, but I'll have to look into it more. I'm working on a fantasy story set in medieval Europe in which there are mythological beings, but no real witches, though people believe in and fear them.

I love the list of nicknames.

Stephen Orr said...

Thanks Genie. Check out that link at "druid". It has a lot more info than I could put here. Good luck with your story!

MarkB said...

I love plant lore please do more posts like this

Newell said...

Hey, I have a large one (about 20' tall) that grew naturally next to an old stone fence on my property in the Catskills. Several years ago it was loaded with berry clusters in the fall. For the last two years it's had little or none. I read somewhere that they only produce every three years. Have you noticed that to be the case with your tree in the city?

Stephen Orr said...

Hi Newell! Nice to hear from you. Sounds beautiful.
I hadn't noticed that. This one produces berries every year so far. I've only been its neighbor for two seasons though. It has more berries than normal this year...maybe next it will take a little vacation. I think a lot of fruiting trees do that.

Jason Dewees said...

The Madeira Sorbus has always fascinated me as a potential garden plant for our San Francisco climate, too mild for many species in the genus.

Stephen Orr said...

Jason, I just googled it. It looks beautiful. Wonder if Flora would sell it

NEGardener said...

"Quickbeam" is the name of an ent character from the Fangorn forest in J.R.R.Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien seemed to especially love the Rowan tree. He wrote poem/songs praising the rowan tree.

Stephen Orr said...

Interesting! It looks like a very Tokien-esque tree doesn't it?

Marcel said...

While looking for information in the tale about the devil hanging his mother mentioned in the wiki, i came across this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Devil_With_the_Three_Golden_Hairs

Which led me to the tale itself: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/authors/grimms/29devilgoldhairs.html

As an aside i find the idea that people may confuse devil's mother and grandmother for each other - or that they might indeed BE one and the same, terribly hilarious in all kind of wrong ways.

Stephen Orr said...

Hi Marcel,
That's all so interesting! Thank you for letting me know more about the topic. It's fascinating.

Marcel said...

Folklore can be a pretty fun subject indeed. My first thoughts upon reading about the "the devil hanging its mother" connected it to some of the folk/humanized names sometimes given the devil. Like:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Nick
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hob_%28folklore%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr._Scratch

Or a place like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hob%27s_Lane