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European Rowan fruit
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Rosales
Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Sorbus
Subgenus: Sorbus
  • see text

The rowans or mountain-ashes are shrubs or small trees in genus Sorbus of family Rosaceae. 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. The name rowan was originally applied to the species Sorbus aucuparia, and is also used for other species in Sorbus subgenus Sorbus. Rowans are unrelated to the true ash trees which belong to the genus Fraxinus, family Oleaceae, though their leaves bear superficial similarity.

Etymology and other names

The name "rowan" is derived from the Old Norse name for the tree, raun. 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 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 Wittern tree. Many of these can be easily linked to the mythology and folklore surrounding the tree. In Gaelic, it is caorann, or rudha-an ("red one", pronounced similarly to English "rowan").

In the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia this species is commonly referred to as a "Dogberry" tree.


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

Rowans are mostly small deciduous trees 10–20 m tall, though a few are shrubs. The leaves are arranged alternately, and are pinnate, with (7-)11-35 leaflets; a terminal leaflet is always present. The flowers are borne in dense corymbs; each flower is creamy white, and 5–10 mm across with five petals. 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. Due to their small size the fruits are often referred to as berries, but a berry is a simple fruit produced from a single ovary, whereas a pome is an accessory fruit.

Rowan is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species; see Lepidoptera that feed on Sorbus.

Mature European Rowan tree

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 naturalised in northern North America.

Rowan flowers

The greatest diversity of form as well as the largest number of Rowan 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.

North American native species in this subgenus 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.

Numerous hybrids, mostly behaving as true species reproducing by apomixis, occur between rowans and whitebeams; these are variably intermediate between their parents but generally more resemble whitebeams and are usually grouped with them (q.v.).

Selected species

  • Sorbus amabilis
  • Sorbus americana, American mountain-ash
  • Sorbus aucuparia, European rowan
  • Sorbus californica
  • Sorbus cashmiriana, Kashmir rowan
  • Sorbus commixta, Japanese rowan
  • Sorbus decora, Showy mountain-ash
  • Sorbus esserteauiana, Esserteau's rowan
  • Sorbus fosteri
  • Sorbus fruticosa
  • Sorbus glabrescens, White-fruited rowan
  • Sorbus harrowiana, Harrow rowan
  • Sorbus hupehensis, Hubei rowan
  • Sorbus insignis
  • Sorbus khumbuensis
  • Sorbus koehneana
  • Sorbus lanata
  • Sorbus matsumurana
  • Sorbus maderensis, Madeira rowan
  • Sorbus microphylla, Small-leaf rowan
  • Sorbus oligodonta, Kite-leaf rowan
  • Sorbus pallescens
  • Sorbus pekinensis
  • Sorbus pinnatifida
  • Sorbus pluripinnata
  • Sorbus pohuashanensis
  • Sorbus pontica
  • Sorbus poteriifolia
  • Sorbus prattii
  • Sorbus pseudovilmorinii
  • Sorbus pygmaea
  • Sorbus randaiensis
  • Sorbus redliana
  • Sorbus reducta, Dwarf rowan
  • Sorbus rehderiana
  • Sorbus retroflexis
  • Sorbus rockii
  • Sorbus rotundifolia
  • Sorbus rufo-ferruginea
  • Sorbus rufopilosa, Tsema rowan
  • Sorbus sargentiana, Sargent's rowan
  • Sorbus scalaris, Ladder rowan
  • Sorbus scopulina, Greene mountain-ash (var. scopulina) or Cascade mountain-ash (var. cascadensis)
  • Sorbus simonkaiana
  • Sorbus sitchensis, Sitka mountain-ash
  • Sorbus stankovii
  • Sorbus taurica
  • Sorbus ursina
  • Sorbus vertesensis
  • Sorbus vestita
  • Sorbus vilmorinii, Vilmorin's rowan
  • Sorbus wardii
  • Sorbus wilfordii


Rowans are excellent small ornamental trees for parks, gardens and wildlife areas. Several of the Chinese species, such as White-fruited rowan (Sorbus glabrescens) are popular for their unusual fruit colour, and Sargent's rowan (Sorbus sargentiana) for its exceptionally large clusters of fruit. Numerous cultivars have also been selected for garden use, several of them, such as the yellow-fruited Sorbus 'Joseph Rock', of hybrid origin. 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. Rowan fruit are a traditional source of tannins for mordanting vegetable dyes.


The fruit of European Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) 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 fruit. The fruit 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. In Austria a clear rowan schnapps is distilled which is called by its German name Vogelbeer.

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 fruit contains sorbic acid, an acid that takes its name from the Latin name of the genus Sorbus. The raw fruit also contain parasorbic acid (about 0.4%-0.7% in the European rowan), 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.

Mythology and 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. In Celtic mythology the rowan is called the Traveller's Tree because it prevents those on a journey from getting lost. It was said in England that this was the tree on which the Devil hanged his mother., while in Scotland a rowan tree is commonly found growing by a gate or a front door to ward off witches. Crosses made of rowan tied with red twine were also used as a witch deterrent. In Norse mythology the rowan was associated with the goddess Sif and, particularly, the god Thor as it was deemed his salvation as the giantess, Gjalp, tried to drown him in the rising flow of the Vimur River

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

In Newfoundland, popular folklore maintains that a heavy crop of fruit means a hard or difficult winter. Similarly, in Finland and Sweden, the number of fruit on the trees was used as a predictor of the snow cover during winter. This is now considered mere superstition (however one can hear old men talk of it), as fruit production for a given summer is related to weather conditions the previous summer, with warm, dry summers increasing the amount of stored sugars available for subsequent flower and fruit production; it has no predictive relationship to the weather of the next winter. Contrary to the above, in Maalahti, Finland the opposite was thought. If the rowan flowers were plentiful then the rye harvest would also be plentiful. Similarly, if the rowan flowered twice in a year there would be many potatoes and many weddings that autumn. And in Sipoo people are noted as having said that winter had begun when the waxwings ( Bombycilla garrulus) had eaten the last of the rowan fruit.

In Sweden, it was also thought that if the rowan trees grew pale and lost colour, the fall and winter would bring much illness.

The traditional Scottish folk song "Oh Rowan Tree" uses the tree as a symbol of home and comfort.

In Fiction

In some fantasy stories, rowan is considered to have magical properties. Susan Cooper makes use of the rowan's alleged supernatural properties in some of her novels in her The Dark Is Rising series. In Greenwitch (1974), the Greenwitch is part of a fictional spring ceremony, held at night, in the fictional coastal town of Trewissick, in Cornwall. The Greenwitch is made of rowan for the head, hazel for the framework, hawthorn boughs and blossoms for the body. After the women of the town build it, the Greenwitch is approached, mainly by young women and girls, to touch it and make wishes, then it is cast out to sea. In at least one case, a wish does come true, which is of climactic importance in the novel.

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