I’m feeling a lot of love for Sorbus at the moment – they are such a super little tree. Our native Sorbus aucuparia is also commonly known as the rowan or mountain ash, which confuses people a lot – this is the kind of confusion that the use of botanical names, as opposed to common ones, helps to avoid. Anyway. You’ll know Sorbus aucuparia by its pinnate leaves – small leaflets arranged either side of a common stalk – and its abundant bunches of scarlet berries, visible from mid to late summer onwards. It’s a small, dainty tree, and this, as well as its long season of interest – bunches of creamy blossom in spring and good autumn leaf colour – make it a good candidate for a small garden. It’s also good for exposed locations, being completely unfazed by poor soil and strong winds.
As a designer, I like to use trees in creative ways – to deflect attention from something unattractive, to add height to a space or to add presence in groups. The compact size of sorbus make it ideal for this too – even when mature, it’s unlikely to have a canopy more than a few metres wide. I recently used a long , sinuously curving row of sorbus to delineate a lawn in a country garden, to help break up an otherwise bare, angular space.
There are excellent cultivars for when a little variety is needed – ‘Joseph Rock’ has bright yellow berries and Sorbus ‘Vilmorinii’ a delicate pink fading to white – it’s a really pretty tree that I’ve seen aptly described as ‘ladylike’.
A second type of Sorbus, and not to be confused with the smaller Sorbus aucuparia, is Sorbus aria or whitebeam – it’s a larger tree with larger single leaves, and looks its best in spring as the new silvery pale green leaves unfurl. The undersides of the leaves are often felted and look gorgeous dancing in a soft breeze. I use this in Galway gardens sometimes as it tends to do really well in this part of the world. Another reason to love this super genus!
The popular cultivar 'Joseph Rock' adds a touch of golden yellow to the autumn garden.
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