Having witch problems?

Been bothered with witches lately? Had any problems with evil spirits nipping into house and home while your back was turned?

Bet you don’t have a rowan in your garden, then.

Rowan is the most immediately-recognised of the Sorbus family, and, in its many varieties, it remains one of the most popular garden trees. Yes, even in this day and age, when the myths and superstitions are long forgotten. Or are they? Could it be that, deep in the subconscious, the properties of the rowan so revered by our forebears, still linger? Could that be why so many of us instinctively select a member of the rowan family for our garden?

Many of you will know Scotland, I’m sure. Have you ever noticed, in the Highlands especially, all the derelict croft houses, abandoned now in these changing economic times? And have you noticed that nearly every one has at least one rowan tree in what would once have been the garden?

Rowan tree with berries

Photo: Eeno11 • Licence information

Way back in both Celtic and Gaelic mythology, the rowan was regarded as the most powerful known defence against evil spirits. This derives, perhaps, from the association of the rowan with the Celtic Paradise beyond the setting sun, and with Avalach (or Avalon), the limbo world between here and Paradise. This close association with such “good”, meant the rowan gradually evolved as a defence against evil.

The tradition has not died. In my “day job”, I am often asked by new house owners, particularly in rural areas, to plant a rowan somewhere near the door to keep the witches away. Although, in the interests of fairness, I feel bound to say my own rowan had only minimal effect where my ex mother-in-law was concerned.

The rowan is often known as the mountain ash. This has come about simply because the leaves are similar. The two are not related, and this does cause some confusion. I mention this as an endorsement of my campaign for more popular use of Latin plant names, which removes the ambiguity. I shall dip my toe into this subject in a future article.

Taking a slightly more practical view, the Sorbus family are eminently suitable for garden cultivation. They are generally quite small trees, and so will never become a threat to your drains or foundations, or disrupt your harmony with your neighbours. All cultivated varieties are bred from the native original, so are hardy, and tolerant of the most neglected and inhospitable conditions. Which means, they are no work.

They are light-leaved. That is, they do not cast a dense shade in summer, so will not interfere with your tan if planted by the sunlounger on the patio. Nor will they inhibit the growth of other plants around them, as, for example, many Acers do.

Masses of creamy-white flowers appear in spring, followed by glorious autumn colours, and a crop of berries ranging from scarlet through orange and gold, to brilliant white. Forgive me for not listing individual varieties here; there are simply far too many. But check the labels in the garden centre. Because they all look pretty similar when not in fruit. But careful selection of varieties will give you a wonderful range of berry colour – always assuming you’ve room for more than one! And if you’re short of space, demolish a garage or something. You won’t regret it.

Now a quick word about whitebeam. Same family, Sorbus, and a close relative of the rowan. You would not think so to look at the leaves, being a totally different shape and texture. But when you see the flowers and the fruits, you will realise the connection.

Whitebeam is a much underrated tree, and deserves a much higher garden profile. It is slightly smaller than rowan, and more compact, making it ideal for the smaller garden. But its greatest attribute is tolerance. Tolerance to pollution, tolerance to wind and exposure, and tolerance to salt. Salt? Exactly. As anyone with a coastal garden will know, salt-laden winds are one of the greatest threats to plant life. But whitebeam will put up with it all, and thrive to boot.

Look for Sorbus aria “Lutescens”. “Lutescens” implies yellow foliage. Well, not quite yellow, perhaps, but the leaves have a yellowish tinge on the underside, which gives a beautiful shimmering effect when blowing in the wind.

So there. The witch problem which has been troubling you for so long, has just been resolved…