Rowan: The Druid's Tree
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
"I had no idea how much time had passed since I had entered the standing stones, or how long I had lain unconscious on the hillside below the circle. Quite a while, judging from the sogginess of my clothing; I was soaked through to the skin, and small chilly rivulets ran down my sides under my gown.
One numbed cheek was beginning to tingle; putting a hand to it, I could feel a pattern of incised bumps. I looked down and saw a layer of fallen rowan berries, gleaming red and black among the grass. Very appropriate, I thought, vaguely amused. I had fallen down under a rowan - the Highland protection against witchcraft and enchantment."
from VOYAGER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 24
Rowan, or "Luis" in Gaelic, is both a tree and the name of the second character in the Celtic Ogham Tree Alphabet. Examples of writing with this alphabet can be found in manuscripts dating from the 6th to 9th centuries and inscriptions on standing stones in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, dating as far back as 400 AD. Ogham was used to write Primitive Irish, Welsh, Pictish and Latin.
The origin of this alphabet is a mystery:
Was it invented before the time of Jesus by Druids that inhabited northern Italy?
Was it a secret code used by Celtic people to communicate in a way that couldn't be deciphered by those who spoke only Latin?
Was it a way to combine Latin and Celtic languages as intermarriage brought the two cultures together?
Historians and scholars have come up with different theories, but no one has the answer.
Ellen Evert Hopman, an herbalist, researcher and modern day Druid priestess, offers her understanding of the Ogham Tree Alphabet in her book, A Druid's Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine.
"The 'Tree Alphabet' is a vital bit of tree lore that has been handed down through the centuries. The ancient Scots, Irish and other Celtic peoples did not use the alphabet that we use today (A, B, C, and so forth). They had their own script, called Ogham, which was both a type of sign language and a written alphabet... Ogham was not used to write books, it was used on commemorative stones such as burial markers. It was used for magic: an Ogham spell could be written on a scrap of tree bark and placed in the way of an advancing army, which would stop them in their tracks."
There are 20 characters in this alphabet, one for each of the trees sacred to the Celts. It makes sense that the letters were named for trees because of the close relationship people had with the natural world. Trees were a source of food, medicine, and material for shelter and tools. For ancient people, trees also had religious, spiritual and magical significance.
The significance of the Rowan tree was that it provided protection from witchcraft and evil spirits. It was called "the Druid's tree." According to Hopman, it was an important wood in the celebration of Beltane: "A rowan fire in the hearth brought luck on May Day morning." In autumn, garlands of red rowan berries were worn by women in the Highlands to keep them safe. The Scots made tiny Xs of rowan wood, bound with red thread, and sewed them into clothing to protect against witchcraft. Implements, cradles and coffins were made of rowan wood as protection from evil.
As ye may remember, Dougal MacKenzie told Claire how Geillis Duncan met her end: "Sent to the devil in a pillar of flame, under the branches of a rowan tree."
Species: Sorbus aucuparia (red berries) and Sorbus americana (orange berries)
Common names: rowan, witch tree, mountain ash
Note: in spite of its common name, rowan is not really an ash - true ash trees are in the Oleaceae family, genus Fraxinus.
Sorbus aucuparia, European mountain ash, is native to Europe, western Asia and Siberia. Sorbus americana is native to eastern North America.
Rowans are striking trees in the landscape with deep green foliage and abundant clusters of white flowers in spring. The flowers give way to large displays of red or orange berries in fall.
Because these trees are in the rose family, they are susceptible to the same fungal diseases. To deter black spot and scab, use members of the Allium genus as companion plants. Alliums include: garlic, chives, onions and shallots.
Rowan berries are very bitter if eaten raw, but are palatable when used in jams, jellies, compotes, syrups, wine and liqueur.
Rowan berries are a good source of Vitamin C, used to treat or prevent scurvy. The berries have been used in traditional Austrian medicine to make tea, syrup, jelly and liqueur for the treatment of respiratory problems, fevers, infections, and gout.
Hopman says that Scottish Highlanders simmered rowan berries, apples and honey to make a syrup to treat colds, coughs, fevers and sore throats.