Gardeners are always looking for small trees and there are many varieties of sorbus that fill that role from Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’, with its beautiful pale grey new foliage, to S. aucuparia, the Mountain Ash or Rowan, which always seems to be the first tree to have ripe berries in the late summer. But the one to have gained a place in our Top 30 is Sorbus oligodonta, a native of the Sichuan, Xizang and Yunnan regions of China. It has pinnate leaves, whitish flowers and, as you can see in the image, pink berries.
I found a reference in Roy Lancaster’s ‘Travels in China’, where he describes a plant of Sorbus oligodonta, found by some members of his party, as one of the best of its kind in cultivation and then goes on to explain the confusion that exists with the identification of this and several similar species. He says that the nomenclature and identity of the different forms is subject to argument among experts and that a great deal more study needs to be undertaken but finishes by saying, “Meanwhile, whatever their names there is no doubt about their ornamental status.” I’m sure we all agree with that!
However, I was intrigued by the name. No, not sorbus, which comes from the Latin sorbum, the fruit of the service tree, Sorbus domestica, but oligodonta, which I had never heard before. In Roy Lancaster’s description and in a book on the flora of China, the leaves were described as only having teeth at the apex and none, or very few, on the sides. In a medical sense, oligodontia is an abnormal condition in which fewer than the normal number of teeth develop. You learn something every day but I have no idea if any of us will ever need that piece of information again.
Meanwhile, our members will enjoy this lovely tree, which has something to offer at each season of the year and will never outgrow its space.