How to grow rowan trees

Alys Fowler
Photograph: Alamy

On an unobtrusive corner of my neighbourhood is a tree so good I have taken to pointing it out to anyone I am with, and sometimes even random strangers. It sits at the bottom of a terraced garden and, from autumn into winter, is decked in the most gorgeous berries.

Sorbus pseudohupehensis ‘Pink Pagoda’ is a pink-berried mountain ash or rowan, originally from Yunnan, China. The berries are perfect; not a sickly sweet pink, nor so pale as to be insipid, and beautifully offset by the blue-greenish foliage. This brilliant combination is then given an unexpected twist when the blue–green leaves turn firecracker red in autumn, before dropping to reveal a purple-grey winter skeleton – and those berries. It’s a drama that unfolds in three acts, until finally, in the last scene, birds cotton on to the food source and strip it bare. In my mind it’s the perfect garden tree.

Sorbus cashmiriana is an excellent choice. Photograph: Alamy

There are others in the genus that shouldn’t be missed for their winter joy. S. vilmorinii is one; it’s a charming tree, perfect for the bottom of the garden where its elegant spreading habit will curtsey, arms out, and block out the neighbours. The fern-like leaves are composed of many small leaflets that turn first red, then purple, before dropping, leaving the red berries to persist. The birds would have them immediately but they fade, just before they are noticed, from rose-red to pink and finally white flushed with rose, which last well into winter. At that point the birds finally catch on to their tricks and have them.

Bohemian waxwing feeding on berries of Kashmir rowan. Photograph: Alamy

Of the white-berried types, I think S. cashmiriana is an excellent choice, as it does everything you want a tree to. It has a good open habit, but is less spreading than S. vilmorinii, offering nice dappled, rather than deep shade. It has soft pink flowers in May (most other sorbus are white flowered), followed by large, gleaming white fruits, up to 12mm across. Huge, loose clusters of fruits hang on long pink stalks, remaining long after the ferny foliage has dropped. A similar species to S. cashimiriana, is S. rosea, with pink flowers in spring and large pink-flushed berries with reddish bark with silvery markings. The cultivar ‘Rosiness’ has particularly good berries and is well worth seeking out.

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Rowans are easy-to-grow trees that do best on well-drained, fertile soils; they won’t like clay or very wet winter soils. They do best in an open sunny site, but can handle some shade; the berries colour best in full sun, though. All these trees will grow to about six metres tall; it will take them about 10-20 years to get to this height.