Mountain ash

Recently on Facebook, Paul Langman posted a photo of a mountain ash tree near his home in northern Japan. At this time of the year, the trees are covered with their bright fruits:


From Wikipedia:

The rowans or mountain-ashes are shrubs or small trees in genus Sorbus of family Rosaceae. They are native throughout the cool temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the highest species diversity in the mountains of western China and the Himalaya, where numerous apomictic microspecies occur. The name rowan was originally applied to the species Sorbus aucuparia, and is also used for other species in Sorbus subgenus Sorbus. Rowans are unrelated to the true ash trees which belong to the genus Fraxinus, family Oleaceae, though their leaves bear superficial similarity.

Here’s the tree in bloom:


The fruits (often called berries, though botanically they are pomes) are edible; they are great favorites of birds.

After the stage in #1, the leaves turn, providing gorgeous fall color.

Now, on names for the plant. There’s a profusion of these. From Wikipedia again:

The traditional names of the rowan are those applied to the species Sorbus aucuparia, Sorbus torminalis (wild service-tree) and Sorbus domestica (true service-tree). The Latin name sorbus was loaned into Old English as syrfe. The name “service-tree” for Sorbus domestica is derived from that name by folk etymology. The Latin name sorbus is from a root for “red, reddish-brown” (PIE *sor-/*ser-); English sorb is attested from the 1520s in the sense “fruit of the service tree”, adopted via French sorbe from Latin sorbum “service-berry”. Sorbus domestica is also known as “Whitty Pear”, the adjective whitty meaning as much as “pinnate”. The name “mountain-ash” for Sorbus domestica is due to a superficial similarity of the rowan leaves to those of the ash; not to be confused in Fraxinus ornus, a true ash that is also known as “mountain ash”. Sorbus torminalis is also known as “chequer tree”, its fruits, formerly used to flavour beer, being called “chequers”, perhaps from the spotted pattern of the fruit.

The name rowan is recorded from 1804, detached from an earlier rowan-tree, rountree, attested from the 1540s in northern English and Scottish. It is from a North Germanic source (such as Middle Norwegian), derived from Old Norse reynir (c.f. Norwegian rogn, Swedish rönn), ultimately from the Germanic verb *raud-inan “to redden”, in reference to the berries (as is the Latin name sorbus). Various dialectal variants of rowan are found in English, including ran, roan, rodan, royan, royne, round, rune.

The Old English name of the rowan is cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (also quicken, quicken-tree and variants). This name by the 19th-century was re-interpreted as connected to the word witch, from a dialectal variant wick for quick and names such as wicken-tree, wich-tree, wicky, wiggan-tree, giving rise to names such as witch-hazel, witch-tree. [The witch-hazel shrub, from which the astringent is derived, is an entirely different plant.]


One Response to “Mountain ash”

  1. Stewart C. Russell Says:

    In Scotland, rowans were often planted either side of a gateway, as superstition had it that no witch could pass a rowan tree. The berries make a pretty (if tart) fruit jelly.

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