We in Southeast Alaska are fortunate to have many mountain ash growing in our forests. They flank the road down half my long driveway, and are lovely at any time of year.
Did you know mountain ash has an alias? It is also known as the rowan tree. The ancient druids revered it. This group included lawyers, poets, and doctors, but were best known for being religious leaders. Druids believed the tree, having the power to enhance life and create magic, held forces that could counteract evil and give protection from witchcraft. For this reason the tree was often planted in churchyards. It was also believed that by wearing a sprig or a cross made from the wood, the person would be safe from such negative powers. Druid priests also used the bark and berries of the tree to make a black dye used for garments at lunar coronations.
A member of the Sorbus genus, mountain ash is part of the rose family. The berries are edible, though rather bland. They are sweeter after the first frost. Nutritionally, they are high in vitamins C and A. When made into jam or jelly, their flavor may be enhanced by adding sugar, ginger and apples. The birds, however, need no additions but find the berries to be choice food. Thanks to these feathered creatures, the seeds have spread throughout the woods of remote Alaska.
Though the berries are edible, this shrub or tree is valuable at any time of year as an ornamental. Its leaves, pinnately compound, are attractive by themselves. In the spring clusters of white flowers adorn the tree. These flowers gradually wilt and turn brown; they then transform and ripen into stunning bright red berries. Once the berries fall from the tree and the temperatures drop, the mountain ash leaves change to spectacular shades of red-orange and yellow, creating yet another beautiful display.
Many ancient groups have legends about the mountain ash under its rowan tree alias. There is a Greek legend concerning Hebe, the goddess of youth. Hebe had a magic chalice from which she served a drink to the gods from time to time, to keep them young and healthy.She lost the chalice and the gods sent an eagle to find it. The sacred cup had been stolen by demons, who then fought the eagle when he tried to take it back. The feathers and drops of blood that the eagle lost in the battle fell to the earth and grew into a rowan tree.
In Norse myth, the rowan was the tree from which woman was made, while man was made from the ash tree. The word “rowan” comes from the Norse word “runa,” which means “to charm.”
Our Gustavus moose certainly find the tree charming. They love the mountain ash bark, but, whether by design or accident, these creatures usually do not destroy the tree. If they ate the bark all the way around the tree, they would kill it. Rather, they tear off a few long strips of the bark. The mountain ash repairs this damage by sending new shoots out through the gaps. Eventually, the moose-chewed tree resembles a bush for the first several feet, with tall branches growing above. I have two mountain ash trees growing side by side in my back yard, both of them bushy at the base where I have watched moose harvesting the bark.
Of course, since the tree had berries, various groups tried fermenting them. Celts made a variety of alcoholic drinks from the juice. The Scots were satisfied with making wine. The Irish made mead or cider. For a milder drink, try brewing the berries into tea.
The wood, being strong and resilient, has been used for walking sticks and carvings. Tool handles, spindles and spinning wheels were traditionally made of this wood.
Whether you call the tree a mountain ash or whether you use its alias, rowan tree, I am sure you will agree that it is a beautiful work of nature.