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Sorbus: seasonal superstar

Sorbus: seasonal superstar


S. Autumn Spire has an upright form. Photo credit: Hillier Nurseries

Looking for a fast, easy, small-to-medium tree with seasonal interest? Go for rowans, says Sarah Morgan.

All gardens need plants that mark our seasons and rowans have most of them covered. Starting with modestly attractive spring flowers, they also have bright berries that come in red, orange, yellow, pink or white, and an autumn finale when their tiny leaflets turn lovely shades of red, yellow or orange.

Even after leaf fall, some berries stay on – the white berries of Sorbus pseudohupehensis AGM set against a grey winter’s sky is an unforgettable sight. It’s one of nature’s mysteries that birds will scoff all the red and orange berries in a day, yet leave the other colours, which is why they stay on the trees for longer.

You can find rowans with very slim canopies, even for tiny gardens. They provide height and screening plus cast a delightfully light, dappled shade that you can underplant with shrubs or perennials. 

On the other hand, the whitebeams (S. aria) look totally different. Their big, single leaves unfurl from what look like huge flower buds, hairy and greenish-white. Although their light grey-green canopies look exotic, they are actually native to our chalklands, and are tough trees even for windy, dry, urban places. 


S. aucuparia makes a good multi-stem specimen. Photo credit: Sarah Morgan

Top rowans

S. ‘Golden Wonder’

Big bunches of bright golden-yellow berries and larger leaflets give this upright tree an attractive feathery appearance. In autumn, the leaves turn shades of orange-red, contrasting beautifully with its yellow berries. H7m*

S. thibetica ‘John Mitchell’ AGM

Hossein loves these dramatic leaves that are similar to S. aria ‘Lutescens’ AGM but much bigger. It can be grown as a specimen tree or cut back every two to three years to form a multi-stemmed shrub. Wonderful. H7m

S. aucuparia multi-stem

Sorbus multi-stem shrubs give great seasonal interest at eye level and they look very natural. Most of the sorbus mentioned here can be grown like this, but there is little demand, so stock is usually limited to this one. H3m

S. commixta ‘Embley’ AGM

Has lovely delicate leaves that turn a magnificent scarlet in autumn, with orange-red berries that can hang on until October. A top choice. S. commixta Olympic Flame is similar, but has bigger leaves and berries and is more erect. H7m


S. Olympic Flame has fantastic autumn colour. Photo credit: Hillier Nurseries

S. ‘Sunshine’

Many new introductions have rather stiff, erect branches, but this is a yellow-berried one with a lovely informality and fabulous autumn colour. It’s a seedling of S. ‘Joseph Rock’ but less prone to fireblight. H7m

S. aucuparia ‘Streetwise’

As the branches are very upright, this is a useful neat tree where space is restricted – its canopy only spans 3m. Hossein loves its bright red berries, and its leaves turn a wonderful yellow in autumn. H7m

S. cashmiriana AGM

A beautiful small tree with soft-pink May flowers and gleaming white berries that remain long after leaf drop, because the birds tend to ignore them. H7m

S. Autumn Spire AGM

This is a stiffly upright yellow-berried variety, a seedling from S. ‘Joseph Rock’, with all the similar bells and whistles of that species, including good red and purple autumn colour, but less prone to fireblight. H7m

*All tree heights are an estimate after 25 years of growth

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