Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

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Whitebeam is a broadleaf deciduous tree native to southern England, though widely planted in the north of the UK.

Common name: whitebeam

Scientific name: Sorbus aria
Family: Rosaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: the berries are known as chess apples in north-west England and are edible when nearly rotten. 

What does whitebeam look like?

Overview: compact and domed, mature trees can grow to a height of 15m. The bark and twigs are smooth and grey, and the shoots are brick red in sunlight, but greyish green in shade.

Leaves: leaf buds are green and pointed and leaf stalks are short. Leaves are thick, oval and irregularly toothed, with the underneath covered in white, felt-like hair. When the leaves first unfold they look like magnolia flowers. They fade to a rich russet colour before falling in autumn.

Flowers: whitebeam is hermaphrodite, meaning each flower contains both male and female reproductive parts. The five-petalled flowers appear in clusters in May, and are pollinated by insects. 

Fruits: flowers develop into scarlet berries, which ripen in late summer or autumn. 

Look out for: the oval serrated edged leaves are softly hairy underneath and dark green and shiny on top.

Could be confused with: not easily confused with anything.

Identified in winter by: the young twigs start hairy and become smooth later. Only the edges of the buds are hairy.

Where to find whitebeam

It is commonly grown in parks and gardens, though is quite rare in the wild. 

Value to wildlife

The flowers are pollinated by insects and the berries favoured by birds. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths, including Parornix scoticella, Phyllonorycter corylifoliella and Phyllonorycter sorbi. 

Mythology and symbolism

There is very little folklore and symbolism associated with whitebeam, perhaps because it is so rare in the wild.

How we use whitebeam

Whitebeam timber is fine-grained, hard and white. Traditional uses included wood-turning and fine joinery, including chairs, beams, cogs and wheels in machinery. 

Threats

Whitebeam may be susceptible to aphids and blister mites.

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