Though the wood is light, soft, weak, and
of limited commercial value, it is strong
enough to be used for walking sticks, where
the good luck it brings is believed to outweigh its frailty. How this little tree gained a reputation for
warding off evil is lost in the mist of time, but it spans many
cultures as well as many eras. Perhaps it began when someone saw
that the fruits are marked at the base with a pentagram, believed
to be a sign of protection. In olden days in England, it was thought
that bewitched horses could only be controlled with a whip made
of rowan, and pieces of the wood were tacked over doors – to the
stable, the cattle byre, to the head of the bed, and so forth – as charms
to ward off evil spirits. In Finland, rowans were planted in the yard in the belief
that lightning never strikes near the tree.
It’s not just humans that seem to revere mountain ash. In summer, our tree is often
full of wasps, butterflies, beetles, flies, ants, and opportunistic hummingbirds, all
seeking out the newest, most productive sapsucker wells. When the sapsuckers return
in May before most flowers have opened, hummingbirds follow them to filch sap and
to pick off any small insects that are doing the same thing. The creamy white flowers
open in May, after the leaves are out, and are borne in beautiful dense clusters about
three inches across. Bees of all kinds gather both nectar and pollen.
Deer, moose, and snowshoe hare browse the leaves, twigs, and bark.
Though the fruits aren’t a first choice for many birds, they
stay on the tree all winter and by spring have been eaten by
grouse, robins, brown thrashers, wild turkeys, catbirds, waxwings,
grosbeaks, and bluebirds. Squirrels, other small rodents, and bears
also eat the fruits.
People have used the fruits over the years, as well, although
they are very acidic when raw. They contain anti-oxidants, iron,
and vitamin C, and have been used as a gargle for sore throats and
to treat malaria and scurvy. The fruits are said to make a reasonably
good wine, though waiting to harvest the pomes till after a hard frost
reduces the sourness. The jelly that can be made from them is best
used with meat.
Keeping evil spirits at bay may still be the best human use for
mountain ash. In addition to having to worry about bad luck and
lightning strikes if we cut down our ugly specimen, the sapsuckers will
no doubt redirect their efforts to the nice apple tree that’s nearby.