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What is a Rowan?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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A rowan is a tree or shrub in the genus Sorbus, native to the Northern Hemisphere. There are a wide assortment of rowan species, with the most diverse being found in Asia, and there are also a number of uses for rowans and their berries. In many cultures, rowan has been used in traditional medicinal treatment, and in some cases the rowan is also associated with good fortune. Rowan wood has historically been used to make furniture and ornaments in Scandinavia and parts of Europe.

Although these members of the rose family are very diverse, they do share several major traits. Their leaves are pinnately compound, with a terminal leaf at the end of each branch. Rowans have white, five-petaled flowers, and berries which are red at the time of ripening. Most trees are of a modest size, and some rowans are more accurately termed shrubs. All are deciduous, losing their leaves in the winter months.

Historically, rowan berries have been used as a source of food by both plants and animals. They may be cooked into jams and preserves, used to flavor alcohol, and included in pickling spices. Rowanberry foods are especially popular in Scandinavia, a region where few plants flourish naturally, so people must make do with the plants that they can grow; in this region, rowan berries and leaves are also used for animal fodder.

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In Celtic culture, the rowan held special significance, with many people viewing rowans as lucky. The Celts made crosses and other ornaments from rowan wood, and planted rowans around their homes for good fortune and protection. Conversely, some societies regard the rowan as unlucky, and it is still forbidden to bring rowan branches into the home in some regions of the world, out of fear that they will invite bad luck.

Some people like to grow decorative rowans in their gardens. These plants are quite hardy, making them suitable for cool climates, and they come in a range of sizes, making them ideal for an assortment of landscaping schemes. Many garden supply stores carry rowan trees or shrubs, and they may also be able to order them for customers; when purchasing a rowan at a garden store, it is a good idea to get advice about the best placement to ensure that the plant will thrive.

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