Sorbus for spectacular berry colour

By: Tony Hall - 01/10/2013

This year has been a bumper one for fruits and seeds. I have picked just one plant group - Sorbus - which not only produces spectacular coloured berries but is also a source of food for both our native and winter visiting birds.

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The genus Sorbus is more commonly known as Rowans and Whitebeams. It produces a wide variety of spectacularly coloured berries - brilliant whites, pinks, oranges and reds, with some quite large and almost apple-like fruits.

Many of the fruits we commonly eat are in the same family, Rosaceae. Apples, pears, plums, peaches and strawberries are all in this family, which of course also includes the roses with their colourful, fragrant, and sometimes edible fruits/hips.

Photo of Sorbus aucuparia

The Mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

Photo of Sorbus aria

The Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

Above are two of our common native Rowans, easily distinguished by their different leaf forms. We also have Sorbus domestica and the Wild Service Tree, Sorbus torminalis. These have now been put into different genera, although in most publications they are still referred to as Sorbus.

We have many micro-species of Sorbus around the British isles. These all have red-orange berries although there are a few, rarer, yellow variants. In the wild - in places such as the moors of Devon or the highlands of Scotland - these trees look spectacular - multi-stemmed and covered in lichens.

Many of the most colourful species come from Asia. Here at Kew we have a good collection of these, with their striking berries. The main group grows close to the Japanese Gateway

Photo of Sorbus prattii

The small showy white berries of Sorbus prattii collected in China. 

Photo of Sorbus alnifolia

The red berries of Sorbus alnifolia from Korea, covered in a white bloom, giving them a pink appearance.

Photo of Sorbus latifolia

One of the larger-berried types, the golden berries of Sorbus latifolia in the subgenus aria, is from Central Europe and is also found in the UK.

Photo of Sorbus hupehensis
The lovely pink-fruited Sorbus huphensis is native to China and is one of the best pink varieties. This small tree also has good autumn colour.

 Photo of Sorbus rehderiana

Sorbus rehderiana. Its really large clusters of small orange berries make this species a target for birds stocking up for winter.

 Photo of Sorbus glabrescens

One of the best whites, Sorbus glabrescens, has large, smooth fruits.

Photo of Sorbus x Kewensis

Sorbus x kewensis

Sorbus x kewensis is a cross between the Chinese and European Rowans, Sorbus pohuashanesis x Sorbus aucuparia, and has large clusters of orange/red berries and, like many of the Rowans, is a really good small to medium sized tree for the smaller garden.

Sorbus is a really great genus of deciduous trees and shrubs with sizes to fit into most gardens. They are good all-rounders with attractive spring flowers, colourful berries which can persist until January, attracting wildlife into your garden, and many have really good autumn colour too. Sorbus commixta is probably the best for autumn colour, turning bright orange and red. 

Photo of a Waxwing on Sorbus

A migrant bird species, the Waxwing, that I was lucky enough to see feeding on Sorbus berries last year

And who knows, if you are really lucky, as well as our usual thrushes, blackbirds and starlings, you may see fieldfares, redwings and even waxwings feeding on the berries in your local park or garden.

- Tony Hall -


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