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Is a Rowan Tree Right for My Garden?

best rowan trees
by Ally North Ally North

Rowan trees (Sorbus) are a wonderful native species for attracting wildlife to your garden. Second only to the English Oak in terms of the species they support (and taking up much less space), they’ll transform your space into a haven for bees, butterflies and birds including blackbirds, song thrushes, fieldfares and waxwings. It’s no wonder the ancient Celts called this the Tree of Life!

They’re also easy to grow, naturally compact and hardy throughout the coldest winters.

We asked our growers which Rowan they’d recommend for each situation, the ideal conditions for a Rowan tree, and how to get the best from them. As a bonus, if you're particularly bothered by malign spirits, a Rowan tree planted near your house is said to banish 99.9% of evil.

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What do Rowan trees need?

Rowan trees are very undemanding - as UK native trees that have evolved in our climate for thousands of years, I guess they’d have to be! They can be grown in any soil and although they prefer sun, will also grow in partial shade. They’re fully hardy, pollution tolerant and need only minimal pruning. Although some Rowans such as Mountain Ash and Lutescens can grow to around 6m, other varieties need much less space, making them a great choice with year-round interest for any wildlife lover’s garden.

Which Rowan tree is the best for your garden?

These are the varieties recommended by our growers.

Best all rounder: Mountain Ash Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

The Mountain Ash has been growing in Britain since Hadrian’s wall was in the planning application stages, so it’s perfectly adapted for anything our climate can throw at it and will thrive in all soil conditions. It’s covered in lacy white clusters of blossom in the spring, the berries are a cheery bright red, the autumn foliage fiery crimson and amber and its naturally upswept and compact form gives elegant shape to the winter landscape. Of course if you’re a wildlife lover, this is an even easier decision - just ask the hundreds of native species that rely on the Mountain Ash for food and shelter.

mountain ash

Best for a specimen tree: Vilmorin Rowan (Sorbus vilmorinii)

This is the one to plant if you want to show it off in your lawn or a wildlife-friendly border. Bred at the Vilmorin Arboretum in Paris, this RHS award winning Rowan has probably the best pink berries of any variety. Starting off rose pink, they fade until they’re almost white in winter. The blossom is white and fragrant and the autumn leaves are amber and gold.

Sorbus vilmorinii

Best for small gardens: Joseph Rock Rowan

Joseph Rock makes an eyecatching centrepiece for a front lawn or in a border. Widely considered one of the best small rowans, it reaches a height of just 4m in ten years. Its berries start off creamy white and turn to a warm yellow, standing out beautifully against the fiery red autumn leaves. Rowans are a long lived species - the original tree planted by Dr Joseph Rock in 1930 is still thriving in the gardens of RHS Wisley!

Joseph rock

Best for autumn colour: Scarlet Japanese Rowan (Sorbus commixta ‘Embley’)

Award winning ‘Embley’ is one of the best ornamental trees for autumn colour, exploding in bright oranges and reds every year - plant it where it can be seen! It’s a good choice for attracting birds to your garden, with plenty of juicy red berries, as well as cascades of pollen-rich white blossom for the bees in spring.

Scarlet Japanese Rowan

Best for winter interest: Pink Pagoda (Sorbus hupehensis)

Pink Pagoda has some of the longest lasting fruits of any rowan tree. They start off rose pink at the end of summer, gradually lightening throughout the autumn until pale pink or fully white berries adorn the elegantly shaped bare branches in winter and provide much needed food for birds. This very ornamental medium sized tree is a good choice for any size of garden, growing to 4-6m, but responding well to pruning.

pink pagoda

Best for birds: Whitebeam (Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’)

Birds LOVE rowan berries, and their favourites are the bright orange-red ones like those of ‘Lutescens’. There’s plenty to please the humans too, as Whitebeam has attractive silvery leaves that turn russet and gold in autumn as well as some of the best white blossom in spring.

In recognition of its wildlife benefits, Lutescens is an RHS Plants for Pollinators and Award of Garden Merit winner.


How to care for your Rowan tree

1. Position

Rowan trees do best in fertile, well drained soils - they don’t thrive in clay or waterlogged soil, but any other kind is fine. You’ll get the best flowers and berries if your tree gets at least 6 hours of sunlight daily, but it will also be fine with a bit of light shade. Rowans suck up a lot of pollution without suffering ill effects, so they’re a good pick for a streetside position. They also work well at the back of borders, as a feature tree in a lawn or even as hedging.

2. Watering

Like most trees, Rowans need regular watering for their first year while they’re getting their root system established. After that you’ll only need to water every week or ten days during hot, dry weather - use one or two bucketfuls, watering at the base of the tree.

3. Feeding

Rowans in healthy, fertile soil will do fine without feeding. If your soil is on the poorer side though, a feed of general purpose granular fertiliser in the spring will help to stimulate growth - as will mixing in plenty of new compost at the planting stage. A mulch of compost or well rotted manure once a year will also help to top up the soil’s natural nutrients.

4. Pruning

When your tree is young, you may want to prune it to improve the shape of the developing crown, removing any vertical or crossing branches. Put in this formative work in the early stages and you won’t need to prune your tree at all once it’s mature, unless you want to restrict its size. If you do need to prune, this should be done in autumn or early winter.

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