Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Protective rowan

A quick glance at at the page on rowan, also known as mountain ash, Sorbus aucuparia, under Material Collected on this website reveals that it is still known as a plant which provides protection against various forms of evil.  Here we attempt to provide an overview of how this property was valued in the past.

Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, in  their Dictionary of Superstitions (1989), trace this belief back to James I’s Daemonologie (1597):  ‘Charmes as commonlie dafte wiues vses … for preseruing them [cattle] from euill eyes, by knitting roun-trees … to the haire or tailes of the goodes’.

John Aubrey in his Natural History of Wiltshire, 1656-91 (but not published until 1847) recorded:  ‘Whitty tree … in Herefordshire …  they used, when I was a boy, to make pinnes for the yoakes of their oxen of them, believing it had the vertue to preserve them from being forespoken [bewitched], as they call it; and they use to plant one by their dwelling-house, believing it to preserve from witches and evill eyes’.

Thereafter, in the 18th century, there are numerous records of the belief, particularly from Scotland, where John Lightfoot in his Flora Scotica (1777) found:

‘[Scots] believe that any small part of this tree carried about with them will be a sovereign  charm against all the dire effects of witchcraft.  Their cattle also, as well as themselves, are supposed to be preserved by it from evil.’

In the 19th century rowan was widely recorded as providing protection for homes, cattle and crops, and a number of artefacts displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, demonstrate how it was used.  Three young twigs, each tied into a simple knot and acquired by the Museum in 1893, bear the label:

‘Rowan tree loops, protective against witches.  Two were placed on the railings of Dr Alexander’s house, Castleton, Yorks, the third on the gateway before the church porch.  They were placed by a horseman who turned his horse thrice before setting each loop.’

In the late 1930s numerous reports of rowan being used to provide protection, especially on May Eve, were contributed to the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Scheme.

In Co. Galway: ‘May Eve they stick a piece of mountain ash in their crops, that the fairies would not take the luck of the crops’.

In Co. Cavan: ‘On May Eve the farmer cuts rowan berry in the shape of a ring and ties it to the cow’s tail with a red string.  It is an old belief that butter would be taken off the milk if rowan berry was not tied to cow’s tails’.

For further examples and discussion see Vickery’s Folk Flora (2019).

Images: main, planted, Tamworth, Staffordshire, September 2021; inset Tooting Common, London Borough of Wandsworth, May 2021.