Winter Jewels

Frosted Agapanthus seed-head
Frost has made a miniature sculpture from an agapanthus seed-head.

There have been a few frosty mornings recently. This morning’s was one of the heaviest frosts so far, the other was on Christmas Day. Both were still and silent, as if the cold was somehow transfixing not just the frosted plants, but sound and movement too.

These are the mornings that feel special in the winter garden. Camera in hand, it’s time to explore this frozen world of new creations. Old seed-heads and dead foliage are transformed into glittering sculptures that will last only until the sun erases them. It’s an ephemeral world – cold and quiet and unfamiliar.

Frosted allium seed-heads
Frost has created tiny firework bursts from these alliums

I always hope that some of the more interesting seed-heads will last long enough to become frosted. This year the weather has been kinder than most winters and there has been little in the way of strong winds or heavy rain. So the seed heads of agapanthus and alliums have kept their frail structures intact and are even holding onto quite a few of their seeds still.

It’s exciting to find out what the frost has been up to in the garden. There are all sorts of little gems waiting to inspire a close-up photograph. The cold makes it hard to linger for long, but it’s worthwhile. For the work of the frost has made it possible to photograph something delicate and transient and, once winter has gone, it will be a long time before the opportunity returns.

Hydrangea petiolaris with frost.
Hydrangea petiolaris with a light touch of frost.

It doesn’t take a lot of frost to create something to photograph. The plants in the centre of the garden, where it is more open, get a lot of frost but those towards the edges are sheltered by fences and evergreen shrubs. The climbing hydrangea in the photo above has a fairly protected position. But its dead flower-head has had enough frost to line the edges and pick out the veins of the larger petals. The tiny flowers in the centre of the head have been turned to lace – an effect that will vanish as soon as the frost melts.

Wild carrot (Daucus carota) covered with frost
Wild carrot (Daucus) was sown late to catch the frost

Sometimes there are still a few flowers left in the garden for the frost to embellish. I had sown some wild carrot seeds much later than normal, in the hope that the plants might still be around when the frosts came. So the frost turned the flowers that were left on the plants into little ice-encrusted embroideries, just waiting to be photographed up close.

Other flowers aren’t really supposed to be around when the heavy frosts arrive. The Anemone coronaria below was too eager to flower. (Last year’s flowers were much later – probably sometime in February.) The mild weather in December persuaded them to put in an early appearance but the flowers couldn’t last long once things turned more wintry. Never mind! The flower may have ‘gone over’ quickly but for just a short time, the frost has turned it into something wonderful, and allowed it to add a little magic to the garden.

Anemone coronaria, covered in frost
This Anemone coronaria flowered very early and got thoroughly frosted.

Colour for a Grey Winter’s Day

Moth Orchids (Phalaenopsis)
Pink veining adds interest to the petals of these moth orchids.

I’ve been saving this group of orchid photographs for this month. There’s not a lot to photograph in the garden at the moment. (But I have taken photos of the few flowers that are out there – that will be another post.)

At this time of year, it lifts the spirits to have some flowers indoors. And it’s nice to have something to aim a camera at without getting damp and chilled.

Macro photo of a spotted orchid
The dark pink spots give a delicate effect to the petals of this orchid.

These are all ‘moth’ orchids (Phalaenopsis), which are now very cheap to buy in many supermarkets. They’re very good value too, because the flowers can last for many weeks or months. (Much cheaper than buying cut flowers.) I’ve found that I can usually get the plants to flower a second time, but after that they tend not to do very well. That’s really down to my lack of knowledge about orchids. I should read up on them and look after them a bit better…

Actually, I stopped writing and had a look around on Google for some info. There’s some very detailed advice on the RHS website and having read it, I can see that I need to find a better windowsill for my plants and be more careful about the temperature. Ah, OK, so I will pay a bit more attention in future!

Macro photo of a yellow moth orchid
Yellow moth orchid – more spots!

As you may imagine, I tend to be attracted to the various markings on moth orchid flowers. The top photo has strikingly pink veins that look almost like stripes and most of the others have spots of varying size. These details work well in a macro photograph and provide something more for the eye to appreciate. The forward-facing lip of the flower gives a natural place to focus, especially with the spots, stripes and blushes of colour that can be found there.

The varied colours and markings on moth orchids can make the flowers look very different from one another. This gives each plant a unique personality. The yellow orchid above, for instance, looks neat and dainty while the more greenish orchid below, with its wild spots and streaks of bright pink, looks decidedly bohemian.

Macro photo of a pale green orchid with pink spots.
The colouring of this orchid is quite an attention-grabber!

An orchid is a pleasing subject for a spot of indoor photography on a chilly winter day. All you need is a nice bright window and a large sheet of white card to reflect some of the window-light back into the shadows.

The delicate translucence of the orchid’s petals will allow the light to pass through, showing up the details of coloured veins or spotty markings and highlighting the structure of the flower. You may also find that you can see the glisten of the crystalline structure of the petal surfaces, as in the photo of the yellow orchid. The colours of the flowers are enriched by the soft window-light too, making them reminiscent of exotic silks.

I’ve spent many happy hours with just an orchid, a camera and a macro lens. The orchid is a flower that really makes it worthwhile to get up as close to it as possible – and that’s something I intend to do very frequently!

Macro photo of a dark-magenta moth orchid
This must be one of the most easily-available orchid colours.

Hydrangeas: Delicate and Colourful.

A pink 'lacecap' hydrangea.
A ‘lacecap’ hydrangea growing in my garden.

Hydrangeas make me wish that I could just wave a magic wand and change my garden soil…moister and more acidic would do fine.

Then I would be able to grow blue hydrangeas, or, failing that, a nice purply-blue shade like the hydrangea in our old garden in Scotland. It was Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mariesii’ (a lacecap) and had flowers that ranged from a good blue to a more lilac/pink shade. Many of the flowers graduated from blue at the centre of the petal to pretty much pink at the outside. It was really delightful and lovely to photograph.

The hydrangea in the top photograph is growing here in our Suffolk garden. It’s very pretty but there’s no chance of any blue in its flowers. Unlike our Scottish garden, which had a fairly acidic soil, the soil here is alkaline. So our hydrangeas will never be blue. (Oh we could try…with acid-based compost, rainwater, and added aluminium sulphate or organic materials such as coffee grounds and eggshells, but that’s doing things the hard way. Much better to go with the conditions you have.)

Purple and blue hydrangeas.
I wish I could grow hydrangeas with these colours here!

So I can only dream about having hydrangeas with flowers in wonderful shades of purple and blue like in the photo above. Or even a stunning blue like the hydrangea below. (Well, winter is a good time for indulging in fantasy gardening, sitting by a warm fire with your favourite books and seed catalogues.)

Visiting other people’s gardens does at least give me a chance to photograph hydrangeas of different types and colours. Finding a plant that you really love is one of the great joys of garden-visiting. And usually means that there’s a growing wishlist of plants to hunt for in the nurseries and garden centres.

Blue Hydrangea
What a fantastic blue!

I find that the flowers of the lacecap hydrangeas are much easier to photograph than the mophead types. The mopheads can be an unruly mass of flowers that don’t cooperate when it comes to creating structure within the photograph. The arrangement of the lacecaps, with their tiny ‘true’ flowers at the centre of a ring of bigger sterile flowers, means that it is easy to find an attractive angle for a photograph.

As well as the pink lacecap, we have the climbing Hydrangea petiolaris here. It’s growing along a shady fence and I’m a bit worried that it might actually be holding the fence up now! Replacing the fence panels in the future, without damaging the plant, might be really difficult, so I should try propagating some cuttings as insurance. The flowers of this climber are very like the lacecap flowers – again they make a good photograph. (I have just photographed a frost-covered flower that had lingered on the plant. That’s for another ‘frosty flowers’ blog post very soon.)

Pastel-coloured 'mophead' hydrangea.
This ‘mophead’ hydrangea has very delicate colours.

Looking at the colours of the flowers here has me dreaming of summer gardens and making plans for my own. Our soil here is rather too dry for hydrangeas to be happy. The plants we already have needed to be watered frequently while they were young and the pink lacecap can still wilt a bit on a really hot day. It may be possible to create a more suitable space for hydrangeas in one of the areas that we’re re-developing in the garden. Somewhere with a bit of shade, maybe. But there will need to be lots and lots of good compost added to the ground to help it retain moisture…that will not be a quick job!

While I work to improve the soil in the garden here, I may just have to wait before planting any more hydrangeas. Meanwhile I hope I’ll be able to enjoy more of them in the gardens I visit. It’s exciting to see plants that I’ve not seen before, such as the oakleaf hydrangea below. (These seem to be less common than the mopheads and lacecaps here in the UK.) And I hope I’ll be able to take some more photographs too. (That’s my kind of plant-hunting!)

White oakleaf hydrangea
The large, rough leaves are a great foil for the white flowers of this ‘oakleaf’ hydrangea.

 

 

 

 

Are You Dreaming of a White Christmas?

Frosted fennel seed-head
Heavy frost makes this fennel seed-head look like a Christmas decoration!

Snow can bring a bit of magic to the garden at this time of year. It covers up the dead  leaves of perennials, hides weeds and makes tiny sculptures from the seed-heads that you’ve left for the birds. And if there’s frost too, then those seed-heads become like icy Christmas decorations.

It’s rare for us to get snow at Christmas here in the east of England. In fact, in the last few days, hubby and I have been using a mild spell of weather to get work done in the garden. (It’s very pleasant if you manage to follow where the sun is as you work.)

Snow is more likely in January, when the temperature always seems to drop and you really start to notice the cold. If it snows, then there’s not much chance to get any work done in the garden. It’s a good time to grab a camera and go for a walk, looking for things to photograph.

Snow-covered Echinacea seed-heads.
Guess what’s hiding under the snow! (Echinacea seed-heads.)

There are water meadows very close to our house, so this is where we usually walk. They become a great plain of white, etched with the dark shapes of trees and the even darker waters of the river. After one especially deep fall of snow, the temperature had risen enough to let the top surface of the snow melt slightly but it then re-froze as it got colder again. This made for a very satisfying walk, crunching through that top icy layer into the soft snow beneath.

Back in the garden, the plants may all turn to soft mounds of white. It can be hard to remember which is which. Everything becomes unfamiliar, clean and, for once, immaculately tidy. These are the days when I don’t look at the garden and immediately begin to think of all the jobs that are waiting to be done there. Instead I wander around with my camera, looking to see what strange forms the snow has created from the plants.

The opportunity to take photographs in the snow is quite rare here and doesn’t usually last very long. (These pictures were taken some time ago.) So if it snows this winter, I’ll have to take my chance quickly and get out into the garden to see what transformations the snow has made.

Snow-covered Eryngium seed-heads
Eryngium seed-heads – prickly little starbursts in the snow.

Snow is part of our romantic image of Christmas – all white and crisp and ideal for sledging, snowballs and making snowmen. We very conveniently forget chaos on the roads, cancelled flights at snowbound airports and horribly slippery paths. Snow is an essential part of Christmas cards, holiday TV and happy childhood memories.

I won’t do a Bing Crosby and wish that all your Christmases may be white – it may be inconvenient for your travel plans or, if you’re reading this on the other side of the world, more than a bit unlikely! But I will say ‘May your days be merry and bright!’ I hope that you have a very happy Christmas.

Anemone seed-head capped with snow.
The fluffy seed-head of an anemone wears a little cap of snow.

Not True Blue

Clematis Crystal Fountain
Clematis bud opening.

Blue flowers are beautiful but those that are truly blue aren’t common. Those that come to mind first are delphinium, cornflower, salvia, morning glory and plumbago. Many of the flowers that we think of as blue have a hint or more of purple, mauve or lavender in their colouring.

I’ve been sitting comfortably inside while it’s been cold and sleety outside, looking through photos taken in the garden here. Working my way through them has made me aware of how often I choose to grow flowers in the purple-blue and mauve colour range.

Purple-blue clematis flower
Blue and purple blend in the petals of this clematis.

The second photo of a clematis shows a very similar colouring to the first photo. (But you’ll see that the bud in that first photo develops very differently as it matures….) Violet-purples and lavender-blues seem to be very common colours for clematis. That can make it hard to choose between them.

The way the colours in the petals bleed into one another is very delicate. It’s almost like the way watercolours blend into each other and is something that I’m keen to try and capture in a photograph.

Blue and a lilac-y pink penstemon
Blue and a lilac-y pink blend in the flowers of this penstemon.

The purply-blues, lavenders, mauves etc seem to all mix quite easily with other colours but not always with ‘true-blues’. However, the penstemon above seems to have managed this perfectly. Maybe nature can teach gardeners a thing or two about colour combinations. But, I prefer the colours in the flowers below, where the blue is a bit softer and seems to blend more gently with the lavender – perhaps there is a touch of red in the blue.

Left: Brodiaea Right: Iris
Left: Brodiaea           Right: Iris

Going much more to the mauve/pink end of the colour range, there are many flowers that look beautiful and mix with the darker purple-blues very happily.

The hydrangea in the photo below grew in my previous garden in Scotland. The flowers on this shrub shaded from blue through to a mauve-pink. Evidently our soil there was not acid enough to turn the flowers completely blue, but the soft blending of the colours on the petals was lovely. (Here in Suffolk, blue hydrangeas turn pink – no chance of keeping one blue!)

The mauve-purple of the Allium ‘Cristophii’ has a lighter feel to it than the blue-purples but looks good with them. It’s an easy colour to use and the flowers are very attractive, so it’s good to see them self-seed around the garden.

Left: Hydrangea Right: Allium
Left: Hydrangea             Right: Allium

So, while I may not have many real blues in the garden here, I’m very happy that there are so many photogenic flowers in the different purple shades.

At the start, I said you’d see how that clematis bud’s colours developed…. here it is…. Yes, it is the same flower!

Clematis 'Crystal Fountain' flower
Clematis flower showing more colour as the flower matures.

 

Summer Memories

pink hollyhock
Sunlight shines through these petals as if they were stained glass.

I’ve been transferring my photo files over to a new PC, so it has given a chance to look through images that haven’t been seen for a while. Among them was this set of hollyhock pictures which were taken on a long-ago summer evening.

We hadn’t been living here in Suffolk for long and still felt relatively new in the area. It was a warm evening with the sun still shining over the water meadows that run along one side of the town, so Hubby suggested that we should go for a walk. We decided to wander along the river and by some of the old cottages along its bank.

One of the cottages had a little bit of garden at the side that had been taken over by hollyhocks – they looked as if they had just seeded themselves wherever they fancied. The tall spires were spilling out of the garden and dotted along the side of the path. Luckily I had taken my camera…….

A pink hollyhock flower
Pale veins stand out against the bright pink of this hollyhock.

For some reason, there was never the chance to photograph hollyhocks while I lived in Scotland. Some gardeners must grow them there but I don’t remember seeing them in Scottish gardens. (Maybe because they seem too tall and vulnerable for the rougher weather there – the winds can get quite fierce.) Here, though, they are everywhere. They’re a real ‘English cottage garden’ plant and an essential part of summer.

We now have a few in our own garden and they seem to be replacing themselves with their own seedlings. This means I never know what colours may come up – usually pink but there have been other colours – yellow and a deep, dark purply-red.

cream hollyhock
The dark centre is a strong contrast to the translucent petals.

The hollyhocks were a treat to photograph. Their petals were so thin and delicate that it was easy to capture the evening sun passing through them. The light made them vibrant. It showed up the marking of the veins on their petals and the jewel-like colours, especially those with the dark ‘halo’ in the centre.

Looking at the photographs now, they bring back happy memories of summertime and an evening spent exploring our new home town. They’re a reminder, too, that it won’t be so long before next summer is on the way!

A reddish-pink hollyhock flower
Brings back memories of a warm summer evening….

Seed-heads – Textural Interest in the Garden

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla) seed-head
Pasque Flower seed-heads have a silky softness.

After flowers fade in the garden, there’s a certain feeling of loss, of knowing that they have disappeared for another year. But some plants have something more to give the garden – attractive seed-heads that add their own texture and interest to the planting.

For a photographer, seed-heads make a great subject. They can have very ‘architectural’, interesting shapes and their textures range from soft and fluffy to extremely prickly. There’s plenty of variety to inspire pictures with different moods. Could be something soft and gentle, or something bold and eye-catching, or perhaps an image with a more nostalgic feel.

Seed-heads have that inbuilt message that something is ending but also remind us that there will be something new – new life – in the future. And for a gardener, seed-heads can be a reason for hope, if there is a chance of new plants springing up – or dread if they’re weeds!

I love to see the Pasque flower seed-heads every year. (Top photo.) They are so soft that you want to stroke them but they can also really catch the light. The fine hairs reflect the sun and make them gleam on a sunny day. (They’re irresistible to my cats too, who find that the heads swaying on their long stems make a great toy to bat a paw at, especially those that can just about be reached through the slats of a nearby seat. Fun for all!)

prickly seed-head
I wouldn’t like to touch this seed-head!

Other seed-heads are not at all welcoming to the touch. But they do at least look interesting in a photograph. I’m happy to say that the plant above was in someone else’s garden. I don’t know what it is, but I really wouldn’t fancy brushing against it in a border. Ow!

I don’t know what the seed-head in the bottom photo is either. It might be a protea. The photograph was taken in a garden that had big glasshouses, so there were a fair number of  non-hardy plants. The combination of textures and shapes and the soft browns, yellows and creams of this seed-head appealed to me. It’s very different to the seed-heads that I would find in my own garden and, like the Pasque flower, makes me feel that I want to reach out and touch it.

At this time of year, when there are few flowers left and so many garden plants are dying back for winter, seed-heads can linger. I like to leave as many as possible in my garden, so that when the frosts arrive, there will be something to photograph. A coating of frost can make a dried-out seed-head turn into something wonderful – a delicate structure with grace and sparkle. So if you like to photograph plants, it’s a good idea not to be too tidy in your garden. Leave those seed-heads standing and wait to see what magic a touch of frost or snow can bring!

I love to read your comments! Do you have any plants that you like for their seed-heads?

Seed-head
Mystery seed-head – could it be a protea?

 

 

Colourful Orchids

Red Vanda Orchid
A red Vanda orchid glows as the light passes through its petals.

It’s getting chillier every day here and we’ve had some very grey skies during the week, so I thought I’d post a bit of bright colour on the blog today.

Wherever I go, I’m always keen to take the chance to photograph flowers. Sometimes there’s something new, or a plant that would be difficult to grow at home. You never know what plants and flowers you may come across when you’re out and about with a camera. It’s pretty much a matter of luck. (And lots of garden visiting!)

It’s also a matter of luck if you find flowers that are in good condition at the time and that you can photograph without other things being in the way. There’s not a lot you can do about distracting backgrounds but experimenting with different angles and getting as close as you can will help a lot.

The weather can be a matter of luck too. If you’re photographing plants outside or in a glasshouse, you’re better to choose a day that is slightly overcast. This will soften the light and make it more diffused, allowing you to capture the colours and textures of the flowers more easily. (Whereas bright sunlight, especially at the middle of the day will easily burn out highlights and create heavy shadows that obscure details.) Low-angled sunlight near the beginning or end of the day is much gentler and the slanting light picks out details beautifully, so it’s good choice if you can time your visit for it.

Blue Vanda Orchid
This Vanda orchid is an amazing blue.

The orchids here are ‘Vanda’ orchids. I’ve never tried to grow these (just the similar-looking Phalanopsis or ‘moth’ orchids), so it’s a joy to find some that I can photograph. Their rich colours and the characteristic dotted effect on the petals add to the visual interest of the photos. And wandering around them, camera at the ready, lifts the spirits – of this photographer at any rate!

The wonderful variety of flower shapes makes the orchid family an inspiring subject for flower photographers. I find them hard to resist and will always be on the lookout for these exotic, intriguing blooms. At home I occasionally grow Phalanopsis orchids.  They are pretty easy because they seem to thrive on neglect and nowadays they can be bought cheaply at most supermarkets. At the moment I have a couple of  orchids just waiting to be photographed. They have a similar white/purple/burgundy colouring but one is a Phalanopsis and I think the other may be an Oncidium, so the flower-shape is very different. (Photographs for a future blog post….)

I hope that these orchids have brightened your day. Do you have different orchids where you live? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Magenta Vanda Orchid
Magenta Vanda Orchid

Passion-Flowers are Perfect for Photography

Passionflower 'Amethyst'
Passion-flower ‘Amethyst’ has strikingly beautiful flowers.

The first time I saw a passion-flower was many years ago, on a holiday in England. It was the usual Passiflora ‘caerulea’, the blue passion flower. It seemed impossibly exotic for a flower growing in the UK at that time. And for someone still living in Scotland, with the colder winters there, the idea of growing one seemed to be pure fantasy.

A few years later I found some plants of ‘caerulea’ for sale in an Edinburgh shop and just couldn’t resist buying one – and, of course, taking lots of photographs of the extraordinary flowers. Later on, I managed to buy a plant of Passiflora ‘Amethyst’ (top photo) and became thoroughly hooked on these beautiful climbers.

For photography they’re a wonderful subject. From further away, the flower is graceful. Every part of it is elegant. There’s the shape of the petals and the way the strands of the corona are held in a ring. And then there’s the sculptural quality of the reproductive parts of the flower.

If you come closer in, there are plenty of details to photograph. You have the way the strands of the corona change from dark purple at the centre, to white, to blue at the outside. You’ll also see the dark purple mottling of spots that covers the three ‘styles’, with more, less pronounced purple spots on the five green ‘filaments’ that hold the anthers.

The plants in  these pictures were in pots sitting on a tiled conservatory floor, so  I used a large sheet of white paper to give a plain background. Because the plants can be an untidy mass of leaves and stems, each flower was gently disentangled from the rest of the plant and the stem holding it was stretched across the white background. This isolated the flowers, got rid of background distractions, and allowed a bolder image to be made.

For the photograph at the bottom, I decided to simplify things further and removed a few of the leaves on that stem. (Cruelty to plants!) Then I placed the flower, with its leaf and the little tendril, in a way that would create a composition with the shadows that they cast.

Before taking close-up photographs like this, it’s a really good idea to check that there’s no dust or bits on your backdrop and that there aren’t any wee beasties in the plant (unless you want them there). It’s frustrating to open an image in Photoshop just to find some tiny critter practically waving and shouting, ‘Yeah, I’m here!’ And if you have pets, don’t forget to check for hairs. I have two cats, one long-haired, and it’s just amazing to see where those fine hairs can get to. (Thank goodness for Photoshop’s heal and clone tools!)

I’m always on the lookout for plants that will make good photographs. Many of the plants in the garden here are chosen this way. So you can imagine my delight when we moved into this house and I discovered that the neighbours had a blue passion-flower that was sneaking under the fence into our garden. There was great excitement when the first flowers opened. Sadly, the plant disappeared. I don’t know if it was due to a very cold winter or if the neighbours decided to get rid of it.

As you would expect, I soon got some plants of my own and the two you see in the photos here are currently living in our conservatory. (I’m trying to learn not to over-water them. They like better drainage than I had thought and I’ve nearly lost them a couple of times!)

In the garden, I’m trying ‘Constance Elliot’, which has pure white flowers and is said to be scented. It’s growing over an arbour and seems to be doing well but I don’t know if it’s hardy enough to come through a cold winter. (Mulching it should help.) It hasn’t flowered yet – that’s something to look forward to next year.

If you’re reading this from somewhere warmer than the UK, passion-flowers may be a common sight for you. You may have some of the more tender varieties that, here in England, I can only dream of. I wonder if there are plants that won’t grow where you are, that you really wish you could have? Do let me know in the comments!

The blue passionflower - Passiflora 'caerulea'
The blue passion-flower – Passiflora ‘caerulea’

 

Rowan Lore

Red rowan tree berries
The rowan tree – once viewed as a powerful protector against evil forces.

Autumn is the ‘berry time’ of year. In our neighbours’ garden, a rowan tree is now heavily laden with glistening red fruits.

This small tree reminds me of the rowan trees that grew in the garden of my childhood home in the north of Scotland. Rowans can often be seen growing beside houses throughout the Scottish Highlands.

In the past, these trees were seen as a ‘lucky’ tree – a superstition which was a diluted form of earlier beliefs in the rowan’s magic powers, especially as an antidote to evil.

In Britain, the rowan was once regarded as one of the most powerful protectors against the forces of darkness. It was believed to keep away witches and malicious spirits and to avert the evil eye.

Witches were believed to be afraid to come near a rowan tree because, if a christened person should touch a witch with any part of the tree, then the Devil would be entitled to carry her away to Hell as his tribute.

Faeries and spirits also kept their distance from the rowan. An old tale tells of a woman who prevented a ghost’s return to its grave by barring its way with a rod of rowan.

Another tale shows that even the Devil himself was believed powerless against the supernatural force of the rowan. A young miller’s apprentice had rashly arranged to meet the Devil. His anxious friends advised him to take a rowan branch with him, draw a circle around himself with it and, whatever happened, to remain within the circle.

When the Devil appeared, he threw a book to the boy and asked him to write his name in it. The boy refused to return the book. Enraged, the Devil made the most terrifying attempts to reach him, but could not break through the magic circle. Defeated, the Devil eventually disappeared, leaving his book in the hands of the startled apprentice.

Since any part of this magical tree was able to turn aside evil, both its wood and its berries were used to make charms.

To make a more powerful charm, red thread was combined with rowan because red, as the colour of blood, possessed a strong magic. Red rowan berries were strung on a red thread to make an amulet which could be placed around the neck of a child to keep it safe from the powers of the unseen world.

”Rowan tree and red threid

Gar the witches tyne their speed”

(Scots traditional charm,  gar = makes,  tyne = lose)

Red thread was also used to bind rowan twigs in the form of a cross which was frequently used to protect young children and livestock. During the dangerous period before baptism, when a new-born child was particularly at risk from witchcraft, the evil eye, or even abduction by faeries, a rowan cross might be fastened to its clothing or to the cradle.

Beltane (1 May) and Halloween were reckoned to be the most dangerous times of the year, because evil forces were then at their strongest. To stay safe, it was wise to carry a sprig of rowan or even to have a piece of rowan wood sewn into your clothing. You might also place a rowan cross above the doorway of your house to make sure that no witches could get in.

It was thought unlucky to use rowan for ordinary firewood, or to cut one down, except for special uses. The tree that protected the Scottish Highlander in life, sometimes protected him in death too, for a coffin or bier made of rowan wood was regarded with great respect.

During its long history as a magical protector, the rowan has earned affection and respect. Nowadays, however, it is more valued as a graceful garden tree which is also very beneficial to wildlife. Next time you see one, I hope you’ll think of the significance the rowan has had for our ancestors and, maybe, imagine how they felt about it. Sometimes a tree isn’t just a tree!

I’m intrigued by beliefs, superstitions and folk-tales about the plants that surround us. I’d love to know more, so if you know any, I’d be delighted to hear about them in the comments……