Wild Service Tree

This beautiful small tree is a definite rarity, although it is native to a large area of England and the Welsh Borders, south of the Mersey and the Humber. It is seldom planted and seldom recognized, and is most likely to be found in patches of old woodland on rough ground that has never been cleared. The flowers and fruit follow the Sorbus pattern, but the leaves are distinct, being five-lobed like those of a maple but you can easily tell the Wild service from maple because the leaves are alternate and not opposite. Winter buds are oval and blunt, and show several round scales each with a narrow brown edge. Wild service bark is blue-grey and smooth at first, but later breaks into rough squares and looks just like that of hawthorn. The trunk has a whitish sapwood and a red-brown heart; it is tough, but too small for use. Occasional trees grow seventy feet tall by eight feet round.

Wild service flowers in May and ripens its fruits in August. They are soft, dull crimson-brown and sweet enough to eat, but with a gritty texture. They were once sold in Kentish markets as 'chequers berries' from the 'chequers tree', a name that may have arisen from the ' chequerboard' appearance of the square-flaked bark. The seeds are spread by birds; if gathered they rest for eighteen months before sprouting. The seedling has two blunt, oblong seed-leaves, then oval leaves with toothed edges before the lobed form appears.

'Wild service' is a botanist's name, based on a slight re-semblance to the True service tree, Sorbus domestica, which grows in France (where it is called cormier) and bears edible berries. 'Service' comes from cerevisia, a Roman alcoholic drink made by fermenting grain and Sorbus berries. The Latin name, S. torminalis, and the Danish and Swedish tarmvrid (literally 'tummy-writhe') are based on the use of the berries to cure colic. The German name is Elsbeere and the French alisier terminal. This tree is found over Central Europe and in southern Scandinavia. In Wales it is called cerddinen wyllt, or 'strange rowan'.

From Trees by Herbert Edlin.

Wayside and Woodland series.