Rowan berries show us how nature is stocking its larder for winter

Peter Dowdall branches out to take a look at the mountain ash or rowan.

Rowan berries show us how nature is stocking its larder for winter

Peter Dowdall branches out to take a look at the mountain ash or rowan.

A lot of berries on the tree means a harsh winter to come — that’s nature taking care of its own and it’s nature stocking the larder. I’m sure you’ve heard all this said in the past and who am I to argue? I would never attempt to second-guess nature nor presume that I know more.

However, I never saw a better crop of berries on the trees than I did during the autumn of 2018, and the following winter wasn’t that severe; temperatures didn’t drop that low.

So, it strengthened my thinking that a bountiful berry display is more a result of the previous spring and summer weather than a portent of weather to come.

That all makes sense until you see the absolutely thrilling display of berries on trees throughout Ireland this autumn. Everywhere I look, be it in private gardens or along the hedgerows of Ireland, trees and shrubs are nearly bending over, such is the weight of the crop that they are holding.

There are many species in fruit at the moment — holly, spindle, hawthorn, and blackthorn to name a few — but what I really can’t help noticing this year more than ever are the sorbus.

Perhaps they have heard about what is happening in London and are getting themselves “Brexit ready” in case the threatened food shortages come to pass.

However, I don’t think that these beauties of nature would lessen themselves by listening to what us humans are getting up to.

Sorbus is a genus of between one and two hundred species, of which two or three are intrinsic to the Irish countryside.

Sorbus aucuparia, which we refer to as mountain ash or rowan, is no relation of Fraxinus excelsior, the common ash, though the pinnate leaves are somewhat similar.

It sustains a huge biodiversity, the large white flowers in spring attracting bees, moths, and other pollinators, and the berries feed a huge variety of birds during the winter months.

In fact, the species name, aucuparia stems from the Latin “aucupor”, meaning to go bird-catching.

It is native and widespread in most parts of Europe and some parts of Asia, and here in Ireland, our mythology is steeped with references to this tree.

The ancient Celts believed it to be the Tree of Life and in times gone by, farmers would make their tools and implements from the wood of the rowan tree to protect their livestock from witches’ spells.

It’s also very prevalent in German and Norse mythology, being used in the coat of arms of many German regions, and it is said that it was a rowan tree that bent over a fast-flowing river to rescue Thor and prevent him from being swept into the Underworld.

There are countless varieties and cultivars of rowan available nowadays, varying in terms of height and spread, flower colour, growth habit, and leaf colour and size.

They are all relatively small trees, growing to a maximum height of about 10-12 metres, and not only do they provide benefits to wildlife, they are also a great choice for planting in the garden for aesthetic reasons.

They are one of those plants that seem to tick all the boxes, providing flower colour during spring and early summer before they set their berries, then the autumn display can be breathtaking and this is followed by what we are beginning to enjoy at the moment, that is the wonderful winter display of berries.

These can be red, orange, pink, yellow, or white in colour depending on the variety.

Sorbus commixta, known as the Japanese Rowan, is similar to S.aucuparia butperhaps more slender in habit.

The berries of S.commixta are orange and perhaps its most striking feature is its deep red autumn colour, marking it as one of the best Sorbus for this display.

One of my absolute favourite trees is Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’ — perhaps not outstanding in terms of colour and seasonal display, but I just love it.

The new leaves, when they emerge each spring, burst out of buds, a beautiful, fresh silver in colour to announce the beginning of a new growing season once more.

For me, they are one of the all-too transient highlights of each natural year.

These leaves change colour by the day and I could sit watching them throughout those few days before they quickly take on their larger, more rounded, grey/green appearance for the rest of the season.

I used to love walking down the South Mall and onto Parnell Place in Cork city in springtime, as there were some really special mature specimens there, which brightened up the city during the springtime.

Most, if not all of them are gone now, and whilst some beautiful liquidambars have been planted recently on Parnell Place, I do miss those whitebeams.

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