The genus Sorbus is a genus of about 100–200 species of trees and shrubs in the subfamily Maloideae of the Rose family Rosaceae. The exact number of species is disputed considerably between different authorities, due to the number of apomictic microspecies, treated by some as distinct species, by others grouped in a much smaller number of variable species, and also depending on the circumscription of the genus. Recent treatments (Robertson et al. 1991, McAllister 2005) treat Sorbus in a narrower sense to include only the pinnate-leaved species of subgenus Sorbus, raising several of the other subgenera to generic rank. Species of Sorbus (s.l.) are commonly known as whitebeam, rowan, service tree, and mountain ash.
As treated in its broad sense, the genus is divided into two main and three or four small subgenera (with more recent generic assignments in parentheses):
- Sorbus subgenus Sorbus (genus Sorbus s.s.), commonly known as the rowan (primarily in the UK) or mountain ash (in both North America and the UK), with compound leaves usually hairless or thinly hairy below; fruit carpels not fused; type species Sorbus aucuparia (European rowan). Distribution: cool-temperate Northern Hemisphere. (Genus Sorbus s.s.)
- Sorbus subgenus Aria (genus Aria), the whitebeam, with simple leaves usually strongly white-hairy below (hence the name, from German Weissbaum, 'white tree'); fruit carpels not fused; type species Sorbus aria (common whitebeam). Distribution: temperate Europe & Asia.
- *Sorbus subgenus Micromeles (genus Aria), an indistinct group of a few east Asian species (e.g. Sorbus alnifolia, Korean whitebeam) with narrow leaves; doubtfully distinct from and often included in subgenus Aria. Distribution: temperate northeast Asia.
- Sorbus subgenus Cormus (genus Cormus), with compound leaves similar to subgenus Sorbus, but with distinct fused carpels in the fruit; just one species, Sorbus domestica (True Service Tree). Distribution: North Africa, warm-temperate Europe, West Asia.
- Sorbus subgenus Torminaria (genus Torminaria), with rather maple-like lobed leaves with pointed lobes; fruit carpels not fused; just one species, Sorbus torminalis (Wild Service Tree). Distribution: temperate Europe, south to the mountains of North Africa and east to the Caucasus ranges.
- Sorbus subgenus Chamaemespilus (genus Chamaemespilus), a single shrubby species Sorbus chamaemespilus (false medlar) with simple, glabrous leaves and pink flowers with erect sepals and petals. Distribution: mountains of southern Europe.
- Hybrids are common in the genus, including many between the subgenera; very often these hybrids are apomictic (self-fertile without pollination), so able to reproduce clonally from seed without any variation. This has led to a very large number of microspecies, particularly in western Europe (including Britain) and parts of China.
Sorbus species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species—see list of Lepidoptera that feed on Sorbus.
Sorbus is also a strong Finnish fruit wine spiced with Sorbus berries.
- McAllister, H. 2005. The Genus Sorbus: Mountain Ash and Other Rowans. Richmond, Surrey, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
- Robertson, K. R., J. B. Phipps, J. R. Rohrer, and P. G. Smith. 1991. A Synopsis of Genera in Maloideae (Rosaceae). Systematic Botany 16: 376–394.
- Price, D.T. 2007. One-way introgressive hybridisation between Sorbus aria and S. torminalis (Rosaceae) in southern Britain. Watsonia. 26: 419–431.