The Mountain Ash: Red with Romance

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by Carl Parsons, Tennessee Master Gardener.

Who wouldn’t love a beautiful ornamental tree, not too large or too small, with an abundance of leaves, pure white buds and blossoms in late spring followed by bright red edible berries in the fall, a tree that lives for up to 200 years and has the added (albeit folklorish) benefit of protecting us against evil spirits?

American Mountain Ash, known in Europe as the Rowan tree

Then meet the mountain ash, also known by its more romantic European name, the rowan tree. The first thing to know is that the mountain ash is not an ash tree at all. While the ash is a very large tree, the mountain ash varies greatly in size, according to the growing conditions, but tends to be much smaller (no more than 10 – 20 feet tall) than the towering ash and belongs to a completely different botanical family—namely, the rose! Indeed, the mountain ash is often so small that it is thought to be a shrub instead of a tree. It does, however, have a compound leaf similar to that of the ash (only smaller and with fewer leaflets), which is the apparent source of confusion.

American mountain-ash (Sorbus americanus) in bloom

American mountain-ash (Sorbus americanus) in bloom

The variety of mountain ash that grows in the Smoky Mountains is the American mountain-ash (Sorbus americanus), which is very similar in nearly every respect to its European cousin (Sorbus aucuparia). The berries of both varieties often last through the entire winter into blossom time the next spring and thus provide an important source of food for wildlife, especially birds which play an important role is spreading the indigestible seeds of the mountain-ash. In England the berries, which are inedible raw, are cooked into a jam or combined with apples in a chutney and served with wild game and other meats.

The tree itself is very rugged and adaptable. While it prefers a rich, well-drained soil, it will grow in nearly all soils, including our stubborn East Tennessee red clay, compensating for any lack of nutrition it encounters by simply adjusting its size.

In the British Isles the rowan tree is associated with many aspects of Celtic folklore and Christian traditions. Both Celts and Christians believed that the tree provides those close by with protection against various evils, especially witches. Hence, rowan branches were often fastened to the lintels of cottage windows and doors as well as over barn doors (for witches especially loved the prank of souring cows’ milk). Rowan trees were also planted in cottage and church yards for protection. The fact that rowan trees often grow in mountainous areas was also thought to drive witches from their favorite habitat, although the real reason seems to be that browsing animals, especially deer and elk, love rowan saplings and so devour those growing in the valleys.

Icon of St. Bridget with a cross woven from Rowen stems
Icon of St. Bridget with a cross woven from Rowen stems

During Candlemas (February 2— the traditional midpoint of winter) residents of the English Westlands (Thomas Hardy country) place crosses made of rowan twigs tied with red yarn about their houses to banish the dark of winter and welcome the coming light and warmth of spring. In Ireland the rowan tree is associated with St. Brigid, the patroness of Ireland, whose feast day is February 1st.

The mountain ash lives so long, at least in part, because it has no pests or diseases that assail it. Deer, however, do browse on its leaves—a point to keep in mind if you plan to grow a mountain ash in your yard. Whether for cultural or botanical purposes, the mountain ash is a native tree well worth considering for our own properties, both to add beauty and provide for wildlife.

Sources: http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/mtnash.html https://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythologyfolklore/rowan2/ Acknowledgement: First published in Hey, Smokies!, 2017.