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 Tree of the month
Sorbus — Rowans, Whitebeams and Service trees
Sorbus is a complex genus that can be divided into various subgenera based upon individual characteristics. Commonly known as rowan or mountain ash, whitebeam and service trees they are widely planted for their attractive flowers, fruit and
autumn colours and come in a range of sizes and forms from dwarf mountainous shrubs to large woodland trees.
Sorbus aucuparia and its many varieties and cultivars are one of the most popular garden trees with fine pinnate foliage and dense clusters of orange, yellow or red berries in the autumn. Sorbus aria or the whitebeam has simple silvery grey leaves with a lighter underside followed by orange red berries. Our native Sorbus torminalis or ‘wild service’ tree has a completely different leaf looking more like a maple with pointed lobes and fruits known as chequers that were historically used to make beer.
Sorbus domestica or the ‘service tree’ is a native of Europe and northern Africa and has pinnate foliage like the rowan but usually gets much larger (15-20m). It is a rare tree in the UK with wild populations restricted to small areas although specimens can be found in parks and gardens.
Whilst the rowans and whitebeams are favoured for garden planting it is worth considering many of the less common species from other subgenera including those within the micromeles subgenus. Trees within this group are predominantly from East Asia and often from mountainous ranges so are suited to our cold winters. Of these Sorbus
alnifolia and folgneri are particularly good specimens and would make a welcome addition to any garden.
Sorbus are relatively easy to grow and are tolerant of a wide range of conditions. Generally the rowans prefer an acidic to neutral soil whilst the whitebeams are more tolerant of alkaline but all will grow in most garden situations. Many Sorbus are short lived and often succumb to disease, however, if pruning is kept to a minimum and trees are well maintained they can make fine specimen trees and will thrive for 20 + years. Propagation is by seed is possible for most species although cultivars should be grafted or chip budded to guarantee the same characteristics and form of the parent
plant.
by Kevin Slezacek, head of arboriculture at James Blake Associates, 01787 248216
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