Irish Tree Lore | The Rowan
Updated: May 18
Right now, I am loving the Rowan trees. They’re always pretty, slender and delicate with beautiful soft fluffy-looking creamy blooms in spring, but at this time of year they really are the star of the show with their frond-like leaves and bright red clusters of berries.
I have two in my garden; they’re thin and lithe, like gawky teenagers, but they bring me great joy.
In Irish, they are known as Caorthann, but other names are ‘Quicken tree’ and ‘Witches tree’. They are a native tree to Ireland, can grow up to 18m tall, and live for over a hundred years. They produce their flowers in May and June, whilst the fruits appear in September and are ripe by October.
The wood of the rowan is hard and pale, and in times past was used to make bows, tools, plates and bowls.
The rowan also had a great many medicinal applications. A tea was made from the berries to treat urinary problems, haemorrhoids and diarrhoea. Berry juice made a great mild laxative, and soothed inflamed mucous membranes as a gargle. As they contained high levels of Vitamin C, the berries were also used to cure scurvy. Today, one of the sugars in the fruit is apparently sometimes given intravenously to reduce pressure in an eyeball with glaucoma. A decoction of the bark was thought to cleanse the blood, and was given as a treatment for diarrhoea, nausea, and upset stomach.
It’s the winning combination of dark green frond-like leaves and thick clusters of glossy bright red berries which does it for me… gorgeous!
Once revered by the Druids, it is hardly surprising that it later became associated with witchcraft, paganism and the supernatural. It was used in rituals associated with empowerment and protection, especially from fire and lightning. To increase virility and male strength, a small piece of rowan inscribed with ogham would be carried. Hung around the necks of hounds, it was believed to increase their speed, and it also possessed the power to protect from evil spirits and the prevent the dead from rising.
In the Celtic Tree Alphabet, the rowan is represented by the Ogham symbol luis.
In the tale of the Hostel of the Quicken Trees, Fionn mac Cumhail and his men of the Fianna are invited to dine in the beautiful hostelry of the same name, described thus:
“It was a fair and beautiful building, with bright intricate carvings on the wood of its uprights and a fresh thatch that shone in the sun like gold, and all around it grew quicken trees with berries full and red on them."
No sooner had they entered, then the walls became rough planks with gaps which the wind howled through, and all the finery disappeared. Most alarmingly, the one door was firmly locked. They were trapped.
Fionn put his thumb of wisdom to his mouth, and activated his second sight. He divined that Midac Mac Lochlan had raised the enchantment against them, and was bringing a huge army to kill them. Pity he didn’t think to try that trick before he led his men inside the hostel.
Anyway, there were many battles, but in the end Fionn was freed when Diarmuid (who later eloped with Fionn’s pretty young wife, the Princess Grainne) cut off the heads of their enemy and sprinkled their blood around the hostel. Yuk! 😝
Rowan blossom (c) wikimedia. By No machine-readable author provided. Olegivvit assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcuri
According to Lady Gregory, when Grainne was brought to her wedding feast with Fionn, she was disappointed to fin him older than her father. But then her eyes fell on Diarmuid.
“Who is that sweet-worded man,” she said then, “with the dark hair, and cheeks like the rowan berry, on the left side of Oisin, son of Finn?” “That is Diarmuid, grandson of Duibhne,” said the Druid, “that is the best lover of women in the whole world.”
Hmmm… with a recommendation like that, it’s hardly any wonder that she jilted Fionn at the alter and ran off with Diarmuid. In all fairness, though, she wasn’t fickle. She and Diarmuid stayed together for twenty years until he was gored to death by the great boar of Benbulben, and they had a daughter and four sons together.
During their flight from the jealous Fionn, who was bent on vengeance, Grainne, who was by this time heavy with child, took a fancy for the rowan berries of a particular enchanted tree which was guarded by a giant.
You know how pregnant women with a craving get; poor Diarmuid had no choice but to challenge the giant. Such was his strength and valour, he outwitted the giant and killed him. Grainne was now free to gorge on the bright red shiny fruit. Despite her condition, she and Diarmuid climbed high into the rowan tree, where the berries were sweetest.
Meanwhile, Fionn agreed to a truce with his enemies, the Mac Mornas, if they brought him either Diarmuid’s head, or a handful of the magical quicken berries. Yeah, I think you can see where this is going, right?
When the mac Mornas reported finding the dead giant, and half the rowan berries eaten, Fionn knew at once who was responsible. He went straight to the tree, believing Diarmuid was hiding in it, where he challenged his son Oisin to a game of chess.
Each time Fionn was about to make a move which would defeat Oisin, a red berry fell out of the tree onto the square Oisin should move to. In this way, Oisin beat Fionn at chess for the very first time, and Fionn knew with certainty that it was Diarmuid who had helped Oisin, for only Diarmuid could ever beat him at chess.
Diarmuid leaped over the heads and weapons of the Fianna and escaped to safety. Poor pregnant Grainne was abandoned in the tree, but fortunately for her, Óengus Óg, the God of Love, took pity on herplight, and like the true gallant gent that he was, he came to her rescue.
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