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Tree 3–7(–10) m. Branchlets stout, c.5 mm diameter, with sparse lenticels, glabrous. Buds to 2 cm long, oblong-ovoid, scales green with red and black at apices, glabrous. Leaves to 20 cm long, with two to three pairs of leaflets, the apical pair being the largest. Leaflets leathery, to 9(–11) × 3 cm, upper surface finely rugose with impressed veins, glabrous, lower surface with red-brown pubescence, non papillose, margins finely serrate throughout; stipules dentate, persistent and leafy, 0.7 × 1.1 cm; petiole 2.5–5 cm long, somewhat sheathing at base. Inflorescences to 15 cm across, dense, with branches and pedicels reddish-hairy. Flowers to 0.8 cm diameter, white. Fruit white with pink around calyx lobes, slightly broader than long, to 0.7–0.8 cm diameter; calyx lobes slightly fleshy, carpels five. Sexual diploid (2n = 34). McAllister 2005a. Distribution CHINA: western Sichuan. Habitat Mountain forests. USDA Hardiness Zone 6–7. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration NT804.
Sorbus helenae (named after Ernest Wilson’s daughter) is very rare in cultivation. The first successful introduction was by Edward Needham, who collected it from the top of Emei Shan (EN 3088). Grafted plants of this have been distributed to several collections by Keith Rushforth (pers. comm. 2008). Another introduction, also from Emei Shan, was made by the Chengdu Edinburgh Expedition of 1991, under the number CEE 308. This is growing happily at Dawyck, making a good bushy individual (there are a few progeny elsewhere). Seen through rainy spectacles it has a suggestion of a Sambucus – this impression contributed principally by the large leaves with their broad leaflets. McAllister (2005a) records that S. helenae has brilliant orange-red autumn colour. It deserves to be more widely grown.