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Notes from the Apothecary

Notes from the Apothecary: Rowan

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Image: ‘Flying’ Rowan at Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire, UK. Copyright Chris Gunns 2006 via Wikimedia, some rights reserved.

As well as what we traditionally think of as herbs, every apothecary should be stocked with some other items. I’ve already spoken about bulbs such as garlic, and spices like cinnamon. Now I’d like to move on to the largest of our green cousins; the trees.

I’ve chosen the Rowan, or mountain ash, as my first tree to explore as it is well known as a sacred and magical plant in many different cultures. I am most familiar with the Celtic tales of the Rowan tree, as it is a path of Celtic Witchcraft I follow. However, my favourite tale about the Rowan is actually from Greek mythology: that it grew from the blood of the eagle sent to retrieve the chalice of Hebe. This is why the leaves are the shape of feathers, and the berries (usually) blood red.

The Kitchen Garden

‘But you can’t eat Rowan!’, I hear some of you cry. Well, OK, I don’t recommend it for the novice, but you can actually make a rather nice jelly out of the berries. You mustn’t eat the berries raw, and even when cooked it’s only the juice or the decoction of the fruit we want. Like rosehips, rowan berries have tiny fibres inside that are extremely irritant to our inner tubes, so they are not for chewing on!

If you boil them up though, breaking them up slightly as they soften, then strain the liquid through muslin, the resulting ‘juice’ has a unique flavour that pairs very well with a pectin high fruit such as apples or pears.

The Apothecary

Our old friend Mrs Grieve tells us that both the bark and the berries have medicinal properties. She advises that a decoction of the bark may be given for diarrhoea and that it is also effective against vaginal infections. The ripe berries, she says, are useful for sore throats and inflamed tonsils. Again, I would warn against eating the berries due to the irritant nature of the seeds. I presume Mrs Grieve means for you to make an infusion of the berries, and strain it well.

Rowan berries are also astringent which may make them useful against haemorrhoids.

Rowan wood has been carried as a charm against rheumatism and the berries hung in a house to ward off flu. Although there’s no evidence to back up the medical claims here, the magical protectiveness of the tree is superb so perhaps this is where the healing comes from in these instances.

Day to Day use

Rowan wood is dense and tough and as such is used for staffs, staves and walking sticks. In Finland, it is used in farm tools and horse drawn sleds.

The berries are also used in dyeing. The berries themselves contain the tannins which help the dye ‘set’, and when combined with the bark produce a dye which stains black. I can’t imagine any item of clothing more potent than a cloak or robe dyed black with rowan.

The Witch’s Kitchen

One of the plus points of Rowan is that any witch can use all parts of the tree; the leaves, the wood, the bark, the roots, the flowers and the berries.

The wood makes an excellent wand, although of course don’t destroy any trees in order to find your perfect piece. Rowan trees are quite small generally and won’t be happy about having huge chunks torn off them. I tend to look for lucky windfalls after a gale. Rowan wood is an excellent protective wood, and wards off energies that seek to harm you. A rowan wand would make an excellent tool for cleansing and consecrating, especially a sacred space. The wood can also be carved, so you can personalise your creation without difficulty if you have the talent.

The leaves have several uses. The type of leaf is ‘pinnate’, meaning ‘like a feather’. They remind us of the feathers of the eagle in Greek mythology, and so represent air and the realm of birds. They also symbolise courage, fighting for what is yours and retrieving lost items. They also symbolise earth (being part of a tree) and balance; just look at the symmetrical imagery in each leaf stem.

The flowers also represent balance as they are hermaphroditic, meaning each flower is both male and female. It is self-contained and independent. The flowers are white, the colour of creatures beyond the veil, contrasting with the fruit which is generally bright red, the visceral colour of our flesh and blood existence.

The bark is an ancient medicine and as such can symbolise knowledge, wisdom and healing. Grind it into an incense or place pieces on an altar to magnify the power of healing magic.

The root is not widely used, but as a sacred tree that fell from the heavens to earth, the root symbolises the link between earth and sky, and we can go further and understand that as the root draws water from the earth into the tree, it is a link between earth, water and sky. It is reminiscent of the great world tree, Yggdrasil, in that it links all the realms, although Yggdrasil is a true ash, rather than a mountain ash.

To complete the elemental quartet, the berries are our fire source. They are strongly associated with the sun, and so fire and the south. They remind us of passion, especially the passion to fight for what we believe in. They are attraction, desire, hunger and hunger fulfilled. They are the fruition of hopes and dreams. They are the driving force of ambition.

Overall, all parts of the rowan tree will protect you and reflect negativity and unwanted magical advances.

Throughout Celtic mythology the rowan tree is used again and again as a portent of magic or misdeed. The chariot of Mug Ruith, the blind druid of Munster, had axles made of rowan wood. Beguiling lips were described as ‘red as rowan berries’ in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. In The Siege of Knocklong, the druid Cith Rua tells Cormac a druidic fire must be made with rowan sticks. These are a tiny selection of the many references throughout what remains of the Celtic tales. If you need any convincing of the magic of the rowan tree, these stories are definitely the place to look.

Home and Hearth

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Image: Rowanberries and leaves in Helsinki Finland. Copyright Jonik, 2004 via Wikimedia.

At or around the autumn equinox, use a handful of rowan berries instead of a candle as your focus of meditation. If you pick them yourself, thank the tree and always leave a few berries for the birds to find. As well as feeding the birds, this helps spread the seeds so there will always be more Rowan trees.

Relax, and breathe normally. Focus on the berries and let their image fill your mind. Other thoughts will come and go. This is normal, don’t try not to think other thoughts as this is counterproductive. Just let the thoughts slide through your mind and either dismiss them or agree to return to them later.

If you find your eyes sliding shut, try visualise the berries in your mind. Remember their vivid colour, their perfect form and their smooth skin. Try to recall any flaws or pocks, and notice how this only makes them more gorgeous and vibrant.

As you dwell on the image of the berries, you may find other images popping into your head. Follow these images wherever they may take you.

When you leave the meditative state, breathe normally for a while, drink some water, and make a record of the images and thoughts that came to you. These will normally be of significance moving into the darker part of the year, and if you can’t interpret them right now, you will usually find clarity will come by Samhain. In times of stress, close your eyes and remember the perfect, round globes of the berries and how you felt when you were focused on them. Allow this peace and stillness to fill you, and push out the anxiety and worry.

I Never Knew…

Rowan berries apparently make an excellent wine! I look forward to testing this theory later in the year… Watch this space!