Pacific Northwest | October 26, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineOctober 26, home
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Turning to Ash
For varied berries and airy leaves, look to the mountain
Sorbus hupehensis has pearly, pink-tinted orbs of fruit that show up well in summer and glow brilliantly against the tree's bright-red autumn foliage. Birds, however, go for taste rather than visuals; if you want to attract them to your garden, be sure to plant the red- or orange-berried mountain ash that birds all seem to prefer over the pale-berried kinds.
With their ferny foliage and clusters of berries, mountain ash are so familiar they aren't as appreciated or widely grown in gardens as they deserve to be. There's no need to be content with that old combination of green leaves and red berries, though, for many of the species and newer cultivars have showy, blue-tinted foliage and variously colored fall fruit.

What I especially admire about mountain ash, besides how easy they are to grow and how much the birds love their berries, is what a light and airy presence they have in the garden. Conifers and even some of the broad-leafed evergreens create a dark hole, lending a heavy presence to the garden on wet, dreary days. The finely cut leaves of mountain ash catch the breeze and softly filter all available light rather than block it.

The genus Sorbus has accumulated quite a few colorful common names over the years, including witchwood, rowan and quickbeam. The name "mountain ash" came about because it grows at loftier elevations in the Scottish highlands than any other tree. In ancient times it was called witchwood because it was believed to repel evil. Today druggists distill sorbitol from its berries, and we grow it for ornamental value.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Dogwoods are usually grown for their pink or creamy flowers in early summer, but many also have outstanding fall foliage as well as colorful little balls of fruit that birds love. Cornus controversa 'June Snow' (above) turns vivid red in October, and has made the 2003 list of Great Plant Picks. Cornus kousa is one of the loveliest of the dogwoods, with pale bracts trimmed in red, pink-tinted fruits and a blaze of bronze-crimson leaves in autumn.
The beauty of a mountain ash can astound even as jaded a tree man as Washington Park Arboretum collections manager Randall Hitchin. He still remembers one encounter with a specimen at Van Dusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, B.C. On a frosty December morning, Hitchin came upon Sorbus 'Joseph Rock,' a magnificent gilded arc of bare branches coated in butter-yellow berries. A month or so earlier, Hitchin would have seen the unique combination of amber berries arrayed against rich, mahogany-colored autumn foliage. But he was plenty impressed by even the berries the birds left behind, and this guy sees many a mountain ash. Part of Hitchin's job is to keep track of the nearly 150 trees in the Arboretum's Sorbus collection, one of the largest in North America.

Sorbus trees have such a vast geographic range that they must be adaptable. They grow from western Europe to the Himalayas and Japan, and as far south as Arizona on our continent. We have several Northwest-native mountain ashes, which grow into shrubs topping out from 3 to 10 feet high. Both Sorbus sitchensis and S. scopulina grow into bird-enticing thickets, or can be mixed into borders with rhododendrons and azaleas. They have white flowers in springtime, golden-to-red autumn foliage, and bunches of large, orange-red fruit. Along with other, more highly bred mountain ashes, they prefer sun, but are also shade tolerant, and provide nectar in springtime for butterflies and hummingbirds. Profusions of berry clusters persist into winter, and are especially beloved by robins; waxwings, orioles and finches also find them tasty.

I combed through my books in search of mountain-ash faults, and found that they can sucker (although my Sorbus hupehensis, in the ground nearly 10 years, has never been so ill-mannered). They also are fairly short-lived (for a tree), and because their fruit can be messy underfoot, it's best to plant them away from sidewalks and pathways. Some have a problem with fire blight, but many kinds are resistant to it.

How to choose one? Hitchin recommends S. hupehensis 'Pink Pagoda,' a cultivar developed at the University of British Columbia, with blue-tinted foliage and berries that turn a rosy pink as they ripen. He also admires S. commixta 'Embley,' which has especially showy orange-to-purple fall color and abundant clusters of crimson berries. As is often the case, the British admire our native plants more than we do; Graham Stuart Thomas advises the western mountain ash, S. scopulina, for smaller gardens, as well as S. esserteauiana 'Flava,' which has bright yellow berries and stays a reasonable size for urban gardens. For the truly tiny garden, there's always Sorbus reducta, which grows only 2 feet high with pink fruit and bronze-red fall color.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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