Country Matters: Blazing Flame of a Magical Mountain Berry Tree

On the well-known Kerry Mount Brandon, rowan trees are occasionally found, their scarlet berries flashing in the fading autumn sunlight.

he mountain ash, as it is also known, is more likely to stand out in supermarkets and gardens today as a cool, conspicuous little tree, without any trace of dark folkloric connections.

The hardy mature tree is typically a solitary faithful companion of wild valleys, growing in bare heights and is usually the last tree seen in the landscape before a peak.

English farmer and writer John Lewis-Stempel describes the mountain ash as “upright splendor in youth and graceful torchlight in maturity, both evident in the bare winter architecture when slanting sunlight flashes and its silver-grey skin dazzles”.

These bright berries, which are high in parasorbic acid, are toxic but contain three times more vitamin C than oranges and when cooked make a bitter addition to any crab apple dish.

But these berries are highly sought after by birds and other wildlife. In one year I observed a mistle thrush fearlessly billeting a supply, patrolling daily and repelling intruders.

If waxwings from northern Europe find a tree, they will eat up to three times their own body weight in berries every day. Squirrels, wood mice and pine martens search for fruit, as do deer and badgers, which climb to feed.

An old Irish verse reads: “Valley of rowan trees with scarlet berries / With fruit sought by every flock of birds / A sleeping paradise for every badger.”

Man was enchanted by the mountain ash because it traditionally has magical properties. His Norse name “raun” means charm or magic and Sorbus aucuparia, Caorthann or blazing flame is respected by country folk for its reputation as a tree of protection. ‘Quickens’ were planted to ward off evil, milk stirred with a twig to prevent curdling, and twigs often tied to cow tails.

It can carry as much darkness as the ruffian or the elder, although in the ancient Celtic wood order it ranks below the precious woods such as oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and apple.

Gavin Maxwell was a Scottish writer who published a famous book titled Ring of Bright Water about pet otters. He had lived an adventurous life, living in a secluded cottage somewhere in the Highlands and Isles with an important mountain ash tree at his door. He called it the “Guardian Protection Power…but vicious when harmed”.

It was in that cottage that he had a heated argument with poet Kathleen Raine and said he had no doubt that she would “spoil the years ahead of me”.

After the row, she came back in the night, put her hands on the mountain ash and cursed it. In 1963, Maxwell left the cottage, which was neglected and leveled under caretakers, killing his otter pets in the process. He died of cancer two years later at the age of 55. Kathleen Raine lived until 2003.

On a rock near the ruins is an inscription about his favorite otter, Edal. It reads: “Whatever joy it has given you, give it back to nature.”

Ring of Bright Waterwhich became a film starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers is almost forgotten today. Country Matters: Blazing Flame of a Magical Mountain Berry Tree

Fry Electronics Team

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