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Sorbus aucuparia or Son of Mountain Ash

The Rowan or Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia is a member of the same family as the rose and is part of the large Sorbus genus (50+ distinctive species).  They are highly variable with several regional sub species. The trees can be quite singular in appearance when shaped by wind on high moors and mountains.

The Rowan has an international mystical reputation.  Witch Tree, Wicken, Witchbane or Witch Wood are amongst old names for Rowan and hint at these perceived mystical properties of the tree. ‘The Rowan (runa) is prominent in Norse mythology as the tree from which the first woman was made, (the first man being made from the ash tree). It was said to have saved the life of the god Thor by bending over a fast flowing river in the Underworld in which Thor was being swept away, and helping him back to the shore’. Trees for Life.  A branch was often used over doorways or cattle byres to ward off the evil eye. In Celtic mythology Rowan is known as the Tree of Life and symbolises courage, wisdom and protection and in Ireland it is linked closely with fairies. Hindus  used the word runa for rowan whose branches were used as as staves that were carved with rune symbols. In the UK the Rowan is known as a tree associated with witchcraft, protecting people and dwellings. Druids think the trees are sacred   and are used for protection against sorcery and evil spirits. An example at the Pitt River museum in Oxford shows two sprigs of rowan tree wood tied with a red twine in the shape of a cross. This is believed to have been a common practice in some parts of Scotland to ward off spirits of the forest.

Venerable Rowan trees are much prized and rightly so. The seed of the isolated Rowan must have been carried to the rock in a bird-dropping from a distant tree. The harsh weather has limited the height but several smaller trunks have grown as though the tree was pollarded. Well that is Scottish wind for you. Lonely Rannoch Moor tree is next to small weedy Lochan on the Allt Lochain Ghaineamhach. The peak of Schiehallion is just visible on the horizon.

Mountain Ash which is  a member of the same group as the Whitebeams  are very much trees of open space, rock faces and open slopes. It is more surprising that these trees can be very rare foe example the Ley’s Whitebeam exists in  two sites in the Brecon Beacons and the Taff valley where they are the worlds only 17 specimens left. The Arran whitebeams (Sorbus arranensis and Sorbus pseaudo fennica) are Scotland’s rarest trees both on the WWF dangerously close to extinction list.

Not all sorbus trees are hard to find and I commend the Thorp Perrow arboretum for a good range of specimen trees. The list from there catalogue is shown below featuring over 70 plants many of which I visited several years ago.

The raw berry or fruit are unpalatable but can be made into a tart jelly. Cultivars have been developed for fruit that  is used in wine and liqueur brewing. You may wonder what else Rowan is good for as well as urban ornamentation. The wood is virtually all heartwood and is used for small tools, hoops, poles and high value treen. The wood can be stained many shades and colours. It is used for walking sticks and dowsing rods.

Catalogue of Sorbus specimens grown at Thorpe Perrow Yorkshire

An earlier post from Gardeners tips is now updated and augmented below:

Key Features of the Mountain Ash

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The Thinking Tree’s Life Cycle

Tree of Knowledge

At the beginning of 2020 UK trees are getting a good press and their significance and importance is better recognised. The more we think about trees and what they can do for us so it is worth considering if and how trees think for themselves.

Early Years Thinking

  • How can we (the tree) get our seed distributed in an optimum manner. We want it in the right place at the right time to germinate and grow. We will use all the tricks of natures trade including water, wind and air blown distribution, animal and creature carrying with the possibility of a bit of fertiliser dropped in for free.
  • Our seed contains a genetic memory of our species and our specific parentage. Memory implies the basis of a thinking ability which will help govern our development into a full blown adult tree.
  • We think about our survival and often anticipate a high germination failure rate and significant early year losses. So we produce a volume of seed to counteract the anticipated conditions including weather, location and external factors.


Book Cover

Mid Life Thoughts and Actions

  • We trees recognise that we are part of a far wider natural and environments system and that we need ecological partnerships. One of the foremost partnership must be with the soil our home for life. The composition and inter-actions are worth much further thought and exploration. Our fruit, bark, canopy and shelter provide conditions for creatures, lichen and others and we can slowly modify our mix of the resources provided to keep pace with changing requirements.
  • Survival calls for our inherited skills. In some cases we must shed unwanted or unsustainable branches and we broad leaf trees are all taught from an early age to shed leaves each year once they have done their job. We think the rotting down of all these cast offs will enhance the soil fertility and feed the worms and fungus that are another partner.
  • Our fertile years turn thoughts to reproduction and particularly fertility. As we mature our hormones tell us to flower and set seed more profusely. Pollination needs the help of others such as insects, birds or winds.
  • Give a thought to our roots which are largely hidden from human view. We start to spread them beyond our canopy as we think it is a sensible thing to do.
  • In middle-age our crowns will level out, limbs grow thicker and we develop our own individual character.

Thoughts on Old Age

  • Venerable Oaks, Yews, Pines and many of our fellow species will live to a ripe old age of many hundreds of years. They have learnt to survive despite climate changes, war and pestilence both human and natural. You think that is just by accident? No we thought not!
  • We think that bending a branch down to earth will give us stability for a bit longer and hollowing out our trunk may provide food for our roots.
  • We grow faster the older we get until we reach a certain height but then stop getting taller.
  • Our dead trees can provide a good habitat for wildlife by providing food and shelter. First we should watch for insect and disease attacks that reduce our health and life expectancy.

This page is not just a ‘bonfire of the inanities’ but ‘shiver my timbers’  it is a plank for future.



Tree Project to Reduce My Ignorance

I have been  inspired later in life by trees and all things with a tree connection. My previous lack of knowledge and propensity to skirt over a massive subject will be developed into a more active skirmish but probably in my normal  skittish manner.

Planning the project on the hoof I am starting in the middle of a tree life with a couple of early January  photos of buds. Some may think this Tree Peony bud is more of a shrub but I am using it to make a point about differentiation between trees and shrubs. In the main a shrub has more than one main stem whilst a tree has a single trunk. There are notable exceptions but that will do me for the time being. Another arbitrary difference is that trees are thought of as being taller than shrubs or bushes.

These buds were on what I took to be a large horse chestnut and I could only reach to photograph them with great difficulty. I can’t climb up trees to take as many photos as I wish as ‘I’m not a lumber jack and that not OK’.

Bud burst is a key and often colourful moment. Rhododendrons tend to feature more in the shrub category but the large older specimens at RHS Harlow Carr, for example, hit the tree heights as far as I am concerned. The Guinness Record for the tallest Rhododendron arboreum at 108 ft is still growing in India .


Tree or Shrub Differences.

  • In the UK gardening fraternity we are more familiar with ornamental shrubs for their colour, form and aesthetic appeal. Trees appeal at a higher level.
  •  Height is a differentiator but even experts have their differences.

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Late to the New Years Party 2020

  • January is not a great time for a gardener to be slow of the mark but it is probably better then than in other months.  For my part I have been soaked and saturated by the heavy down pours so far this year that I have been late setting out my gardeners tips plans for the year.

Rhododendron buds

Before I launch onto my major project of the year ‘Trees I will have a quick recap on my January activity so far.

  • In line with my resolution to improve all round plant health I have cleaned up all the indoor plants, trimmed off old brown leaves, given orchid leaves  a wipe down to remove dust and moved as many plants as possible into better light. I also used some Christmas present garden tokens to stock up on granulated fertiliser and spread some epsom salts on the raspberry canes.
  • Wanting to grow several ‘golden’ flowers for autumn I have been researching Dahlia, Chrysanthemums and begonias to buy in the near future.
  • I have cleared up the greenhouse after the late chrysanthemum plants were taken out of them soil. I plan to grow in pots next year leaving the greenhouse beds for more salad crops.
  • I audited the seed stock and augmented it with new mixes of lettuce, mizuna and poppies.
  • I moved to a frost shelter and renovated some of the many ornamental and standard pots around the house.
  • Lastly I am looking despondently at scaffolding all around the house and impinging on the garden for a reroofing exercise that should start tomorrow.

An unusual shade of bract on a Christmas poinsettia, The traditional red variety lasted until september 2019 but my effort to put it in the dark for this year was thwarted and the compost found a new resident.

An old favorite in its 4th year we still get colour on the heart shaped display.


Flowers Suitable for Art Painting

I am no botanic artist and I am too old to learn and train but I do appreciate a good source photograph to paint in oils.

This clematis bloom captured at an RHS trial gave me inspiration to get it painted.

Colours Contrast and Tone

  1. Seldom are white flowers exclusively white but a mix of many colours and shades. School boy physics explained that white light could be split by a prism into all the colours of the rainbow.
  2. The light source is full-on yet there are graduations of tone that stop short of full shadows.
  3. The overlaid petals and the veins seem lighter and brighter.
  4. The bottom leaves are dark blue-green which helps them to recede and provide much needed contrast.
  5. Aesthetically I like the pistels and the lime green colouring.


  1. The focal point is the flowers center. I could drop the intruding leaf from the left if I thought it conflicted with the prime focus but the round shape is pleasing.
  2. The picture takes the eye round in a series of circles and ellipses and keeps the eye within the frame.
  3. The colour scheme is simple and not too complex but the execution may be more problematic.
  4. The focal point may be a bit too central but is offset by the second flower. In any event the final painting can be skewed left or right if desired.

I will attempt a painting and ‘may’ even show the result later


Autumn Leaves Shared with Others

It dawned on me that many tree leaves are shared in one form or another. Mine get blown over the wall on to the road and into neighbors gardens. The ones that are collected and bagged to make leaf mold are shared with worms and micro organisms in the circle of life. Those under hedges do more good than harm.

Municipal trees are planted in public spaces and a careful selection of species can produce wonderful autumn colours and vibrant spring shoots. Young children get an early hands on experience of nature if they collect fallen leaves. A bit of encouragement and sharing of adult knowledge may engender a life times interest.


The Iceman Cometh

Norwegian Iceman Sculpture Cardiff

As if all the heavy rain has not been bad enough the icy weather is just around the corner. Jack frost will be nipping into your garden this month and may stick around for 5/6 months or so. It is worth revisiting some of the issues and options gardeners face.

Early Preparations

  • Consider your water features including both still and moving. I start by lagging my outside taps and draining hosepipes.
  • Be prepared for frozen bird baths and ponds with means of breaking the ice.
  • I have cleared moss of the paths and hope to reduce icy slips.
  • Check out hessian wrapping and/or horticultural fleece stock. I always remember to buy it when the frost has bitten.

Plant Protection

  • Every gardeners tip says do not walk on frozen grass the stems become brittle and snap.
  • Give tender plants shelter in a greenhouse, cold frame, window ledge or under some cover.
  • Mulch well to protect roots.
  • Sweep snow falls off the leaves and branches to stop them being permanently damaged.
  • Wrap banana plants, tree ferns and exotics in sacking or other frost prevention measures.
  • Some plants, particularly alpines, suffer more damaged from water than frost . So maintain drainage and don’t panic in the frost

My Tips for Planting Bare Root Trees

Capture more carbon with some trees as a contribution to a better environment. Whips, trees, hedging and field grown saplings are available without the excess packaging of plastic pots and gaudy plastic labels. They are also great value.

Quick Tips

  • Bare root trees, as they ‘say on the tin’ (or not the plant pot) are loose and free of a soil ball.
  • Late autumn to early spring are the best time for planting trees that are supplied from free grown ground.
  • Select a suitable site bearing in mind sun/shade wind direction and visual expectations.
  • Prepare a hole larger than the full extent of the roots so they can be spread out.
  • Break up the soil at the bottom so no hard pan can form a sump for excess water.

More Tips

  • Soak the roots in a bucket of water for an hour then water well after planting.
  • Trim off any broken or damaged roots with a sharp knife
  • Prior to planting place a support stake in the hole and firm the soil around the tree progressively to avoid large pockets of air.
  • Mulch with organic matter and water regularly as the tree is established.
  • Try planting some fruit trees, ornamentals or extensive hedges using bare root stock.

Learn more by watching You Tube videos



Growing Curmudgeons

To me a curmudgeon is not something to plant or see growing in your garden. That is because a curmudgeon is great, galumphing, gormless gardener a bit like me.

Other Definitions of Curmudgeon

  • Curmudgeons who garden with bitterness are a symptom rather than a disease and should be treated like weeds.
  • A cantankerous naysayers acting as self appointed gadflies to be insecticided.
  • A crusty, ill-tempered or difficult and often elderly gardener potentially from Yorkshire.
  • Lest we forget the many female versions of curmudgeonliness  would be battle axes with a few choice synonyms added.
  • ‘National Curmudgeons Day, celebrated on January 29, is growing in popularity. That particular date was selected to honor the ornery among us because it is the birthday of comedian, writer, and self-professed curmudgeon W.C. Fields’.



Mast Year 2019

As I walked past a line of trees the beech nut husks crunched under foot. The pavement was strewn with copious quantities of this crunchy produce from the venerable trees. I was moved to include a few notes on nature’s masting process.

Mast Production

  • A mast year occurs when a bumper crop is produced. It has the effect of increasing the potential for reproduction but also feeds-up creatures in anticipation of a hard winter.
  • Mast seeding is also called masting and the produce is a mast
  • Mast years are so called due to the  production of many seeds by a plant every two years or so
  • Masts are often produced in in regional synchrony with other plants of the same species.
  • It is thought a mast year may be designed as a defense to assist reproduction of a species because seed predators become satiated before all the seeds have been consumed.
  • Many species ‘mast’ including oak, hickory, and beech with their acorns, hickory nuts, and as with beechnuts they produce a ‘hard mast’.
  • Fruit trees and other species may produce a soft mast but the volume of produce will still be much more fruit than normal


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