Sorbus - Growing Guide

Introduction to Sorbus

The species and varieties of sorbus which we stock are all hardy trees growing to varying ultimate heights, with varying leaf forms, varying spectacular autumn colours and with different coloured berries. Those species and cultivars with pinnate leaves grow best in moist but well drained acidic soil in full sun or dappled shade. Sorbus aria varieties will, however, also grow in dry and/or chalky conditions as well as in acid soils.

Most sorbus trees need firm staking to get them established properly and can easily get blown over in the first few years after planting. Most sorbus are offered as grafted plants (often with S. aucuparia as the rootstock) and particular attention needs to be paid to removing any suckering new growth from the base of the tree below the graft.

Seed can readily be sown in containers in the cold frame when ripe in the autumn. Keeping mice away is essential and you may need to be quick to beat the thrushes and redwings to the fleshy ripe fruits. Unless your sorbus is grown well away from any other species or variety do not expect the seed to all come true.

Mention should be made separately of S. reducta which is a thicket forming, suckering shrub growing to around 3-4ft (sometimes it can be available top grafted onto another sorbus species and there is a good plant at Caerhays grown in this way). Its leaves are also pinnate with up to 15 glossy dark green leaflets which turn red and purple in autumn. The berries are crimson at first and then turn white. This is a plant best left to roam at the edge of a shrub border, but it definitely creates an autumn display when the clump is well established.

Sorbus reducta click for larger image
Topgrafted Sorbus reducta

Sorbus with entire leaves

Sorbus with entire (rather than pinnate) leaves

S. aria ‘Lutescens’ (a form of the whitebeam) grows 30-50ft in height and has large ovate or obovate toothed green leaves which are white-hairy on their undersides. Brown speckled dark red berries.

S. folgneri ‘Emiel’ grows with us as an arching tree with pendant branched and narrow ovate leaves. Its flowers here in May are in large spectacular corymbs of white flowers. The yellow autumn colour is spectacular as are the copious clusters of orange-red berries which we germinate easily each season. With us it grows no more than 20ft with a 10ft spread after 30 years. 

S. intermedia, the Swedish whitebeam, is a compact rounded tree growing to 40ft or so. In late spring it has dense corymbs of white flowers in profusion followed by bright red berries.

S. thibetica ‘John Mitchell’ has broadly rounded leaves and grows into a conical tree of around 50-70ft in height. The new leaves are white hairy when young as are the undersides of the mature leaves. Orange or yellow berries.

S. torminalis is actually a UK native species of sorbus but little known in gardens. It grows with us to about 40-50ft with ovate maple-like leaves and scaly bark. Bronzy yellow autumn colours are good, and the fruits or berries are russet brown.

Sorbus caloneura click for larger image
Sorbus caloneura

Sorbus with pinnate leaves

S. aucuparia, mountain ash, is a common roadside and woodland tree in the north of the UK. It also graces our parks and gardens with mountainous panicles of red berries (sometimes orange-red) which usually stand out well on the trees by August, long before the dark green leaves, which have up to 12 pinnate leaflets, turn red or yellow in the autumn. These trees can grow to 40-50ft.

S. aucuparia ‘Shearwater Seedling’ has a narrowly upright habit and grows to around 30ft.

S. ‘Autumn Spire’ also has a compact columnar habit and yellow berries with a red centre. 

S. cashmeriana grows to around 25ft with 17 to 21 lance shaped dark green leaflets. It has corymbs of pink or white flowers and white berries which are tinged pink until fully ripe.

S. ‘Chinese Lace’ is also a smallish tree with deeply cut dark green leaflets and orange-red berries.

S. commixta ‘Embly’ grows to around 30ft and has outstanding red autumn colour to go with its orange-red or red berries.

S. hupehensis, the Chinese rowan, grows to around 25ft and has a broadly columnar habit with up to 15 blue-green leaflets on its individual leaves. Red autumn colour and white berries slightly flushed pink when fully ripe.

S. ‘Joseph Rock’ is an upright tree to 30ft. Its leaves turn orange red and purple in autumn, and it has pale yellow or orange-yellow berries.

S. pseudovilmorinii has very finely cut pinnate leaves and deep pink berries which age, when ripe, to paler pink with a white blush.

S. sargentiana is a slow growing upright species with sticky red winter buds and huge (14in) pinnate dark green leaves with up to 13 leaflets. The autumn colour which this species exhibits with us is considerable. The leaflets turn orange and red in autumn behind the huge clusters of rounded red berries.

S. scalaris also grows to what is an ‘average’ sorbus height of around 30ft. This is a spreading tree with up to 33 dark green leaflets on each pinnate leaf. Red berries and excellent red and purple autumn colours at the nursery entrance here.

S. vilmorinii is a spreading shrub or small tree to about 15ft. Glossy dark green leaves with up to 29 leaflets. Dark red berries at first ageing to pink then white. The white flowers show up well here in early summer set against such dark pinnate leaves.

Sorbus japonica click for larger image
Sorbus japonica


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