A top 5 recommended native tree for gardens by the RHS.
Position: full sun or lightly dappled shade
Soil: tolerates most soils but prefers slightly acidic soil
Rate of growth: fast-growing
Flowering period: April to May
Hardiness: fully hardy
Rounded tree with mid- to rich green leaves that turn deep red and yellow in autumn, especially after cool summers. Sprays of tiny white flowers cover the tree in late spring, followed by bunches of red berries in autumn. Berries are quickly eaten by birds making it ideal for a wild or woodland garden. This conical-shaped tree can also tolerate harsh conditions and is perfect for a small, urban garden.
Garden care: Requires minimal pruning. Remove any broken, diseased or crossing branches in late autumn or winter. When planting incorporate lots of well-rotted garden compost in the planting hole and stake firmly.
Not to be confused with the not closely related true Ash. The Mountain Ash or Rowan could be included in Wild Fruit Trees for the Rowan-berry which formerly counted as one of the home fruits. see below
The rowans or mountain-ashes are shrubs or trees in genus Sorbus of family Rosaceae. They are native throughout the cool temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the highest species diversity in the mountains of western China and the Himalaya, where numerous apomictic microspecies occur. The name rowan was originally applied to the species Sorbus aucuparia, and is also used for other species in Sorbus subgenus Sorbus. Rowans are unrelated to the true ash trees, which belong to the genus Fraxinus, family Oleaceae, though their leaves bear superficial similarity.
Formerly, when a wider variety of fruits were commonly eaten in European and North American culture, Sorbus counted among the home fruits, though Sorbus domestica is all but extinct in Britain, where it was traditionally revered. Natural hybrids, often including Sorbus aucuparia and the whitebeam, Sorbus aria, give rise to many endemic variants in the UK.
Webster had this to say about the Mountain Ash or Rowan over a century ago. Quoting earlier works by Evelyn, apart from the renaming from pyrus to sorbus, his descriptions are still accurate.
Little description of the Mountain Ash is needed, for in recent years it has come so much into favour that it is now one of the commonest of the trees planted in gardens and fore-courts in London.
Its hardiness, its indifference to the character of the soil, the fact that other plants will grow beneath it, and the absence of need for pruning—all these points unite to make it suitable and popular for growth in restricted spaces. But the wood on the hillside is the natural home of the Mountain Ash, and in the Highlands its vertical range extends to 2600 feet above sea-level.
Rowan, or Mountain Ash—summer.
Rowan, or Mountain Ash. A, portion of flower-cluster.
The Mountain Ash attains a height of from thirty to fifty feet, and has a straight clean bole (trunk), clothed in smooth grey bark, scarred horizontally as though it had been scored with a knife. All the branches have an upward tendency, and the shoots bear the long feathery leaves, whose division into six or eight pairs of slender leaflets suggests the Ash, from which part of its name has been borrowed.
Gazing on this tree either in flower or fruit, it would be quite unnecessary to explain that it is not even remotely allied to Fraxinus excelsior, and that the similarity of leaf-division is the only point of resemblance between them. These leaflets have toothed edges, are paler on the underside, and in a young condition the midrib and nerves are hairy. The creamy-white fragrant flowers are like little Hawthorn blossoms, though only half the size, and they appear in dense clusters (cymes) in May or June.
The fruit are miniature apples, of the size of holly-berries, bright scarlet without and yellow within. They ripen in September, and are then a great attraction to thrushes, blackbirds, and their kind, who rapidly strip the tree of them. Though this at first sight may appear like frustrating the tree’s object in producing fruit, it is not really so, the attractive flesh being a mere bait to induce the birds to pass the seeds through their intestines, and thus get them sown far and wide. By this method the process of germination is considerably hastened, whereas by hand-sowing the seeds lie in the earth for eighteen months before shooting.
All the species of Pyrus (Sorbus) produce their fruits with this object, the larger more or less brownish ones being intended to attract mammals, the smaller and red-coloured to tempt birds.
The seeds have leathery jackets to protect them from the action of the digestive fluids, and are further wrapped in a parchmenty, bony, or wooden “core” (endocarp) with a similar object. In the case of the Rowan this is very like wood.
In the south of Britain the Mountain Ash is chiefly grown as underwood and used as a nurse for oaks and other timber trees, which soon outgrow it and kill it; so that in the woods it is seldom allowed to grow into a fully developed tree, but, thanks to the birds, it comes up on the common and the hillside, and has a chance of producing its masses of ruby fruit. Its wood is tough and elastic, but, owing to the smallness of its girth, it does not produce timber of any size. Still, it makes admirable poles and hoops.
The word Rowan is one of the most interesting of tree-names, and connects the still-existing superstitious practices of our northern counties, not only with the old Norsemen, but with the ancient Hindus who spoke the Sanskrit tongue. The word is spelled in many ways which connect it with the Old Norse runa, a charm, it being supposed to have power to ward off the effects of the evil eye. In earlier times runa was the Sanskrit appellation for a magician; rûn-stafas were staves cut from the Rowan-tree upon which runes were inscribed. Until quite recently the respect for its magical properties was shown in the north by fixing a branch of Rowan to the cattle-byre as a charm against the evil designs of witches, warlocks, and others of that kidney.
In this connection we may quote also from Evelyn’s “Sylva.” He says:
“Ale and beer brewed with these berries, being ripe, is an incomparable drink, familiar in Wales, where this tree is reputed so sacred that there is not a churchyard without one of them planted in it (as among us the Yew); so, on a certain day in the year, everybody religiously wears a cross made of the wood; and the tree is by some authors called Fraxinus Cambro-Britannica, reputed to be a preservative against fascinations and evil spirits; whence, perhaps, we call it witchen, the boughs being stuck about the house or the wood used for walking-staves.”
Among the numerous names of the Mountain Ash are Fowler’s Service (or Servise, from Cerevisia, a fermented drink), Cock-drunks, Hen-drunks (from the belief that fowls were intoxicated by eating the “berries”), Quickbeam, White Ash (from the colour of the flowers), Witch-wood, and Witchen. Quickbeam is in allusion to the constant movement of foliage, quick being the Anglo-Saxon cwic, alive. Witch-wood and Witchen are also forms of cwic.
Bole of Rowan.
Flowers of Rowan.