I think trees are great. But I always find myself changing my mind about what my favourite tree is at different times of year. In spring, it’s the birch, for its vibrant greens and wonderful, air-filling, green-growing, trees-after-rain smell. In summer, it’s the Scots pine-there’s nothing better than sitting on a soft prickly carpet of pine needles and breathing in the warm, resinous smell of the pines. At this time of year, it’s the rowan that steps forward, with its cluster of berries reddening daily and growing more and more obvious.
If you visit the reserve right now, you can’t help but notice the rowans. The trees are almost breaking under the weight of the largest berry crop I’ve seen in years. The berries are still on the orange side of scarlet right now, but a few more sunny days will ripen them nicely. These are a wonderful food source for birds- already, as you approach a tree, there is often the alarmed plink-plink-plink of a blackbird or the high, thin call if a song thrush as they fly off. As autumn wears on, these birds will be joined by their Scandinavian cousins, the redwing and fieldfare, in feasting on the berries. If the berries fail on the continent, they may also be joined by exotic- looking waxwings- rowans are their favourite food, if they can’t get apples. People eat rowans as well, usually as a jelly with meat or they can be made into a dry rose-type wine.
Rowan trees also creak under the weight of stories as well as berries. My grandma always used to say a heavy rowan crop meant a bad winter. Equally, in some tales, in means a mild winter- the rowan won’t bear snow and lots of berries in the same year. Rowan berries were reddened with the blood of Christ, or the blood of an eagle sent to retrieve the chalice of eternal youth, and the wood of the tree was a protection against witches. Crosses of rowan wood, tied with red thread, were hung over cradles and stables to protect children and animals-“Rowan wood, red thread, tae mak a’ the witches dread”. But the twigs had to be broken, not cut with a knife, never cut, because everyone knew the touch of cold iron destroyed the magic! Look around at the ruins on the reserve and you’ll see rowan trees close to the field and houses. These would have been planted for protection against supernatural forces.
So, if you come and visit us, you’ll see the wonderful rowans and the feeding thrushes….but not any witches!