The Wild Service Tree


Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis)

Dear Readers, when I was in Cherry Tree Wood last week I made a point of popping by to visit an old friend, the Wild Service Tree that grows next to the cafe. It is so easy to overlook trees, for all their size,  and indeed I would have walked right past this if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by Brenna Boyle of Wild Capital when we were on a wildlife walk (an experience that I can heartily recommend if you want to learn about London’s plants and animals). But once identified, a Wild Service Tree  is very distinctive, with its extraordinary criss-cross bark. This one also bears a little red triangular badge, which shows that it is under a Tree Preservation Order, and so should be protected from the worst excesses of over-enthusiastic council tree surgeons.

IMG_4983Never common, these trees are seen as being an indicator of ancient woodland, because they rarely disperse far from their parent tree – in his magisterial book ‘Woodlands’, Oliver Rackham describes the problem. The fruits (of which more below) are probably designed to be dispersed by birds, but for hundreds of years either the wrong birds have eaten them, or the seeds are not carried away. Rackham speculates that maybe the tree co-evolved with a bird that is no longer resident in the UK, or is extinct. So, when you see a Wild Service Tree, you can be fairly happy that it’s a relative of a tree that grew very nearby.

As Cherry Tree Wood was once part of the Bishop of London’s hunting grounds (as was Coldfall Wood) it is a reminder that this spot has not always had tennis courts, a children’s playground and regularly-graffitied public toilets. The Mutton Brook is said to arise somewhere in the wood (behind the aforementioned public toilets judging by the iris-covered bog behind them), and once upon a time deer and boar were killed amongst the oaks and the hornbeams. Maybe the ancestor of this tree was there when bugles were blown and hounds scuffled amongst the fallen leaves.

IMG_4985The Latin species name of the Wild Service Tree, torminalis, means ‘good for colic’, and the fruits, sometimes called ‘chequers’ were used as a remedy for this affliction. More to the point, though, the fruit was used to flavour a ratafia (another new word). This is a drink made by marinating berries or fruit in some kind of spirit – think of cherry brandy or (my favourite) sloe gin. This may account for the number of English pubs called ‘The Chequers’, though some folk also think it might refer to the pattern on the bark. And there’s me thinking that these hostelries were named for an innocent board game.

"Sorbus torminalis Weinsberg 20070929 5" by Rosenzweig - Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

The fruit of the Wild Service Tree – Photo credit below.

The fruit is said to be too astringent for today’s tastebuds, and is described as only being edible when over-ripe and allowed to become almost rotten, a process known as bletting. This is also used with wild fruits such as medlars and rowan berries. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes the taste of Wild Service berries as being:

‘…not quite like anything else that grows wild in this country, with hints of apricot, sultana, overripe damson and tamarind, and a lightly gritty texture’.

Actually, that sounds like a perfect fruit for a Christmas pudding to me. I wonder if anyone has ever tried it?

Unfortunately, summers in the UK are rarely warm enough for the Wild Service Tree to produce much fruit, and it tends to reproduce by suckers instead. However, there are exceptions: Richard Mabey describes a tree at Parsonage Farm, Udimore, in East Sussex, which has a 13-foot girth and in a good year bears two tons of berries.

"Mespilus germanica 01" by Takkk - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Some bletted medlars – photo credit below.

The leaves of a Wild Service Tree resemble those of a maple, though they also look to me like inverted angels.

"Sorbus torminalis leaves kz" by Kenraiz - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

Wild Service Tree leaves (photo credit below)

In spring, the tree produces flowers which look very similar to those of my garden Whitebeam (not surprising, as they are closely related)

Wild Service Tree flowers (photo credit below)

Why, though, is this tree called the Wild Service Tree? There are a number of possibilities. One is that the word Service is a corruption of the Roman word for beer, cerevisia (which will be recognised by anyone who has ever asked for ‘dos cervesas por favor’ in a Spanish bar), and that the berries were used to flavour this beverage. Richard Mabey thinks not, however, and disputes that there is any link between this plant and beer. He believes that the word Service relates to the Old English word Syfre. And, to my delight, I discover that there is an Old English- Modern English translation site on the internet, so I put in the word Syfre. And here’s what it says:

clean pure chaste sober not giving way to appetite or passion abstinent temperate circumspect

What a perfect description of this tree as it stands quietly alone, bedecked with white flowers or golden leaves. It seems like a serious tree to me, one not given to frivolity or nonsense, for all that its fruit has probably engendered such behaviour in generations of drinkers. I love that it is growing next to the footpath here, sinking its roots into the London clay that it prefers to all other soils. There are reminders of the history that we share with plants and animals everywhere we go.

IMG_4987Photo credits:

The fruit of the Wild Service Tree – “Sorbus torminalis Weinsberg 20070929 5” by Rosenzweig – Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Bletted medlars – “Mespilus germanica 01” by Takkk – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Wild Service Leaves – “Sorbus torminalis leaves kz” by Kenraiz – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Wild Service Flowers by Nicolas Turland at

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer





6 thoughts on “The Wild Service Tree

  1. Tom Raw

    How interesting. The story I heard (I forget where from) about pubs called “The Chequers” was that they made and served beer flavoured with chequers instead of hops. Back when beer was safer to drink than water and people brewed it at home, it was flavoured with all sorts of things (whatever was to hand), and the description of chequers’ flavour – astringent yet fruity – sounds similar to a good hoppy bitter. Does Mabey provide a suggestion for the pub name?

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Tom, Mabey suggests that the drink made from chequers was a kind of ratafia, rather than a beer, so he isn’t denying the link with pub names, but is saying that it wasn’t used to make beer. My suspicion is that probably all kinds of alcoholic beverages were made from Wild Service Tree berries, and Mabey points out that many pubs have such trees in their gardens. The chequer board came to be a pub sign in much the same way as the red and white pole was the sign for a barber/surgeon.

      I guess we shall never know the whole story, but there is no doubt in my mind that a) Wild Service berries have long been involved in the creation of alcoholic drinks, and b) that this is how so many pubs ended up being called The Chequers.

  2. Anne Guy

    Great blog about a forgotten tree! Fortunately we live near an ancient woodland which is just down our lane and there are several of them there. We also have a village pub near us called the chequers which I guess is named after the tree despite the pub sign of a chequered apron clad chef!!

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  4. David Cann

    The picture of flowers is certainly hawthorn and not wild service tree. There seems to be an issue with being able to easily leave comments.


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