Rowan, Whitebeam and Mountain Ash trees are all part of the genus Sorbus. Rowan trees have lovely dense corymbs of creamy white flowers in spring, followed by red, white, pink or yellow berries in autumn. Rowans are deciduous with foliage varying from dark green to silvery blue with striking red, orange and yellow autumn colours.
As well as being popular with humans for aesthetic reasons, Sorbus tree berries are popular food for chaffinches, siskins and blackbirds. Fieldfares and redwings actually plan their migration from Scandinavia to the UK to coincide with the berry production of Rowan trees. Once they have eaten the berries they disperse the seeds along their way, ensuring a new generation of young Rowan trees.
Rowan trees are historically a pioneer species and thus are tolerant of a range of conditions. Although preferring well drained soil, they can tolerate some damp in most soil types. They are an excellent choice of tree for less than perfect conditions. For advice on planting Rowan trees, take a look at our Help and Advice section.
Sorbus is derived from the Latin name for Sorbus domestica or the Service Tree as it is commonly known. The name aucuparia comes from the Greek for bird catcher, referring of course to the popular berries. Back when a wider variety of fruits were foraged, Rowan berries were counted as one of the home fruits.
There are many different names for Sorbus, including Witty tree which means witch’s tree as it was thought to ward off evil spirits; Wayfarer’s tree and Traveller’s tree as people believed Sorbus trees prevented travellers from becoming lost on their journey and Mountain Ash tree as it grows well in the mountains and has similar leaves to Ash trees.
In mythology, the Rowan tree saved the God Thor by reaching over a fast flowing river, in which he was being swept away, and bringing him back to the riverside. In the Victorian era, some believed that Rowan trees could deter evil such as witches. In other countries, the amount of berries produced were used as indicators for things such as snow fall.