Rowan or mountain ash is one of a number of things that our ancestors believed would protect them from lightning. In an earlier post I noted the link between rowan and Thor, the Norse god of Thunder. But why were certain plants singled out as protective in this way? One theory is that it was inspired by their physical features. The serrated pinnate leaves of rowan, for example, may have put our ancestors in mind of the jagged shape of lightning in the sky, and its orange-red berries were a reminder of the fire and heat that a lightning strike can generate.
But the rowan’s magical powers were not only metereological. For example, rowan wood within the construction of a ship protected it from harm; a rowan stick would remove the witch’s curse on milk that refused to turn to butter; and horses struck with a rowan whip would never become bewitched and bolt.
The 17th century English diarist, John Evelyn, described the particular respect with which the rowan was held in Wales during his time:
Ale and beer brewed with these berries, being ripe, is an incomparable drink, familiar in Wales, where this tree is reputed so sacred that there is not a churchyard without one of them planted in it… On a certain day in the year everybody religiously wears a cross made of the wood; and the tree is… reputed to be a preservative against fascinations and evil spirits; whence, perhaps, we call it witchen, the boughs being stuck about the house or the wood used for walking-staves.
The rowan’s ability to actually dispel witchcraft was also recorded by William Williams in his Occult Physick (1660):
Take a cluster of quick-bane [= rowan] tree berries green, and convey them about the party suspected to be a witch, and then examine her and she shall confess. Pound the same berries and strain them and give them to any beast or man that is overseen by a witch or witchcraft, and it helpeth them.
The tree became known as wiggan, witchen, or witchwood. In the 17th century Depositions of the Castle of York, an alleged witch called Susan Hinchcliffe is reported as complaining that it was proving impossible to cast her spells upon one Thomas Bramhall “for they tie so much whighen about him, I cannot come to my purpose”.
Witches’ powers were so inhibited by the rowan tree that a branch thrown in her path would stop her in her tracks, or even send her packing, hence John Evelyn’s note about the popularity of the tree for walking sticks. Who knows when you might come across a malevolent witch when out for stroll? It was common to plant rowan trees near the front door or to have branches of it in the house to ward away evil. Even in Victorian times some people carried rowan sticks about the person to protect themselves. Typically two sticks were bound with red thread to increase its power because it was believed that witches disliked red, the colour of blood. The power of the rowan to defeat witches was especially strong if twigs were cut on the 2nd of May, known as St Helen’s Day or Rowan Tree Day.
See also the Woodland Trust guide to identifying the Rowan.