The Rowan tree, commonly referred to as the ‘Mountain Ash’, has become an incredibly popular tree in the UK; especially in urban spaces as they are known to thrive in harsh conditions with compact growing habits. You have more than likely come across several already this year, especially as during this time of year as they display attractive bunches of red, orange, or even white berries. For a genus which provides so much much needed winter colour, they are relatively unknown and perhaps they deserve a little more praise than they currently receive. Rowan tree’s are typically distinguishable by their pinnate green leaves, white flowers in spring and brightly coloured berries in autumn and winter.
The similarities between the Rowan and the Ash, and given that Rowan’s are found at much higher altitudes is what gave it the name ‘Mountain Ash’. However, the Rowan is in the genus Sorbus of the rose family Rosaceae and completely unrelated to the Ash which is a part of the Oleaceae family.
Rowan is typically the name associated with the European variety Sorbus aucuparia which derives from the Latin word sorbus for ‘service tree’ and aucuparia which is formed from the words avis for ‘bird’ and capere for ‘catching’. Rowan trees were traditionally used in game hunting as many birds were attracted to the tree’s berries.
There are other varieties however as the Sorbus genus can be found throughout much of the Western hemisphere including Asia. Sorbus commixta or ‘Japanese Rowan’ is the species native to Japan and Korea where it is known as nana-kamado, literally translates to ‘seven (times in the) stove’ as the wood is robust and can be used several times in fires. Additionally there is the Sorbus aria, or ‘Whitebeam’ which hails its name from the lightly coloured timber it produces.
Despite being popular in more modern urban spaces the Rowan Tree has held a special place in our collective imaginations for centuries. The European Rowan is richly documented in folklore as protecting people from evil and demonic spirits and would be commonly referred to as the ‘Wicken Tree’ or ‘Witch Wood’. It is for this reason that Victorian writers commented on people, especially in Scotland, having Rowan trees planted outside of their homes. S. aucuparia has also been known as the ‘wayfarer’s tree’ and the ‘traveller’s tree’ as it protected travellers on treacherous journeys and prevented them from getting lost.
One thing is almost universal about the Rowan and that is that they are adored by wildlife. Come Autumn all manner of birds will gorge themselves readying for winter. In their natural form, however, the berries are far too bitter for human consumption. They can be freezed however to break down the acids and then cooked to make jams, chutney, jelly or even a wine!
‘The whitebeams are members of the Rosaceae family, comprising subgenus Sorbus… They are deciduous trees with simple or lobed leaves… They are related to the rowans and are thought to derive from hybrids between S. aria and the European rowan S. aucuparia.’ Called white beam due to the white colouring on the underside of the leaf.
Sorbus aucuparia ‘Apricot Queen’
Blooms profusely white flowers between April and May followed by apricot coloured berries and fiery red autumn foliage. This particular variety is hardy against harsh conditions including pollution and so makes a tough attractive tree in urban settings. Initially bought into the UK for commercial growing during the 1980s it has become widely popular today.
Sorbus aucuparia ‘Asplenifolia’
More commonly known as the Cut Leaved Mountain Ash the leaves of this cultivar are particularly serrated. Providing rich tones of orange and red during the Autumn there is also a charming display of quite large crimson berries.
Sorbus Commixta ‘Embley’
Often referred to as the ‘Scarlet Japanese Rowan Tree’ this cultivar is renowned for its fiery Autumn displays. It was initially brought to the UK during the 1880s from Japan and has been a popular cultivar ever since, both for people and for the birds who love to feed on its orange berries.
Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’
This Whitebeam variety was initially brought to Britain from a French Nursery and then commercially grown from 1885. When the leaves emerge in Spring both sides of the leaf are covered in miniscule downy hairs giving it them a stunning white glow. As the seasons progress it loses the hairs on top of the leaf but retains a white underside accompanied by orange fruit in the late summer and a golden Autumn display in early Autumn.
Sorbus aucuparia ‘Joseph Rock
This particular cultivar of Rowan Tree is named after the Austrian Botanist Joseph Rock who explored different parts of Asia throughout the 1920s bringing back different plants and introducing them to the West. The Autumn colours are particularly striking on this attractive tree; the fiery red leaves juxtapose beautifully with the creamy-white berries.
Sorbus aucuparia ‘Sheerwater Seedling’
Horticultural journalist Noel Kingsbury lists the ‘Sheerwater Seedling’ as one of the most ideal ornamental trees for urban and tight spaces. It is easy to see why; it is one of the most compact rowan tree’s available and yet still provides the charming pinnate foliage along with profuse bunches of red berries.
Sorbus hupehensis ‘Pink Pagoda’
The name literally means ‘Hupeh Rowan’ or ‘Hubei Rowan’ which derives from Hubei Province in China from which this sub-genus originates. It has also been commonly referred to as the Chinese Mountain Ash. The beautiful blue-green pinnate foliage acts as a fantastic backdrop for the vast bunches of pink berries which in many cases pull the branches down, hence ‘Pink Pagoda’.
Sorbus thuringiaca ‘Fastigiata’
The S. thuringiaca is a cross between the aira and the aucuparia grown initially at the start of the 20th century in York. ‘Fastigiata’ comes from the word ‘fastigiate’ which simply means to have a very columnar growth habit. This particular variety is noted for its spectacular Spring display of white-clustered flowers.
Sorbus aucuparia ‘Beissneri’
Known simply as the ‘Common Rowan Tree’ it is identifiable by all the quintessential traits of a European Rowan. In Spring lush green leaves appear along with clusters of snow-white flowers and then scarlet red berries during the late summer.
Sorbus aucuparia ‘Chinese Lace’
‘Chinese Lace’ is actually a European Rowan and not a Chinese Rowan. The name instead reflects the fine foliage which hangs of the branches in a lace-like fashion. The leaves have deep serrations and are known to turn a beautiful burgundy shade come Autumn usually accompanied with bunches of scarlet berries.
Sorbus cashmiriana ‘Kashmir Rowan’
A unique cultivar of Rowan hailing from Kashmir in the Himalayan mountains it is most readily distinguishable by the large white berries it produces. These berries can be as large as half an inch and they’re bound to stay on the tree for much longer as birds do not seem to enjoy them. The flowers too are larger than European and Japanese Rowans and are also slightly tinted pink making it an unusual and spectacular ornamental Rowan.
Sorbus ‘Eastern Promise’
Awarded RHS’s Award for Garden Merit ‘Eastern Promise’ has become a popular tree here in Britain due to its tough, hardy nature and its pristine, compact growing habit. Like many other Rowans it is well suited to the urban and confined environment and is distinguishable by the pink shade of its tiny berries.
Named after the 19th century French Horticulturalist Maurice de Vilmorin this variety originates from Western China including the mountainous region of Tibet. Blooming quite large white flowers in Spring it produces particularly huge pink berries during the Autumn.
Liam works in the buying team at Primrose. He is passionate about studying other cultures, especially their history. A lover of sports his favourite pass-time is football, either playing or watching it! In the garden Liam is particularly interested in growing your own food.