Wild Service trees
Wild Service trees in Rockingham Forest
Dotted around the woodlands of Rockingham Forest you can find one of the least known of our native trees – the Wild Service (Sorbus torminalis). The tree has had importance in Rockingham Forest’s heritage and we have adopted its distinctively shaped leaves and fruit as our logo.
The Wild Service has a fascinating ecological and social history, revolving chiefly around its small but exotically flavoured fruits. The story of its rise, decline and subsequent rediscovery parallels the history of our scarcer domestic fruit trees. The fruits, sometime known as chequers, were a Neolithic staple. Later they gained enough popularity for houses, farms and pubs to be named after them, and then they passed into obscurity, as the tree's ancient woodland habitats were destroyed, and as more glamorous fruits became cheaply available.
A bunch of chequers in early autumn
The brown berries, which may be round or pear-shaped, are hard and bitter at first, but as the autumn progresses, or once they are picked and taken indoors, they begin to 'blet' and turn soft and very sweet. The taste is 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. In former times they were a boon when other sources of sugar were in short supply, and were enjoyed as a kind of natural sweet by children.
This is a very common name for public houses, especially in the south of England. It is said that, before the widespread use of hops to flavour beer, Wild Service berries, or chequers, were used. So a hostelry brewing its own ale would have needed a ready supply and it became commonplace to grow a Wild Service in the garden.
Typical mature tree in September. Wild Service often changes colour before other species
There is disagreement about the origin of the name “service”. Some say the name derives from the Latin word for beer, cerevisia, because the Romans used the fruit of the related true-service tree (Sorbus domestica) to flavour beer. Others say that it is derived from the Latin Sorbus, from the Old English “syrfe”.
Chequers picked when they have ripened
For much of the year Wild Service is an inconspicuous tree with its maple leaf-shape and grey-red, cracked bark. But for two brief spells it can be dazzling. In May it is covered with white blossom, almost as thickly as a pear. And from late September, after the brown fruits have set, the leaves on many of the trees turn to the red and orange autumn colour of cherry leaves.
Wild Service blossom
Typical bark patterning of a mature Wild Service tree
As you’d expect for a tree with showy flowers, they are pollinated by insects. Not just bees (though those are indeed attracted to the open-shaped flowers) but also beetles and, predominantly, by small flies. This serves as a good reminder of the important role a whole variety of insects play in pollination, and also of the importance of our native trees as food for pollinating insects.
Like many plants, Wild Service leaves also host some specialist leaf-eating insects, which only eat this species plus a handful of related species such as Whitebeam, Rowan and some of the wild fruit trees. Many leaf-eating insects, in particular leaf miners, gall makers and moth and butterfly caterpillars, are limited to eating one or a few species of plant. It makes it all the more amazing that the adults manage to find the correct food plant on which to lay their eggs when these trees have such a scattered and scarce distribution in the landscape.
Typical bark, buds and leaves of Wild Service trees
The species is common in much of Europe, though Rockingham Forest is near the northern limit of its distribution. In England it is more common further south especially in Kent, Essex and Surrey but it has a long history in the East Midlands too. There is an interesting paper describing the tree’s distribution by P. Roper in the BSBI archive. Based on a 1974 survey, the paper includes the following extracts:
66. NORTHAMPTONSHIRE AND ROCKlNGHAM FOREST
The tree has long been known in northern Northamptonshire and north western Cambridgeshire in the old Rockingham Forest area. The early 19th century poet John Clare, who came from this neighbourhood, was familiar with the tree and called it by its local name of Surry as well as Service Tree in his writing (Clare 1832). J. R. Gilson (pers. comm., 1977) has reported that parish bounds in the Rockingham Forest area used to be beaten with branches of the tree, and the branches also used to be carried at the head of village processions (Grindon 1883). All this indicates that the tree has long been familiar in the countryside here.
67. Rutland and Kesteven
Both in Rockingham Forest and this area, pheasant shooting has been popular, particularly on the large estates, since the last century. Many Wild Service trees grow in the coverts where the birds are raised or roost and the birds are known to be very fond of its fruit (Conwentz 1895). This may, to some extent, have helped the tree survive as gamekeepers undoubtedly know what their birds like. In some cases the species could have been deliberately introduced, particularly into the smaller woods that are wholly artificial and that were established with game and foxes in mind.
'The Surry Tree', by John Clare written about 1830.
Tree of tawny berry rich though wild
When mellowed to a pulp yet little known
Though shepherds by its dainty taste beguiled
Swarm with clasped leg the smooth trunk timber grown
& pulls the very topmost branches down
Tis beautiful when all the woods tan brown
To see thee thronged with berrys ripe and fine
A flowering Wild Service, resplendent in May 2020
Ancient Woodland Indicator
Wild Service Trees are one of the 130 or so indicator species of ancient woodlands. This is probably due to the fact that, in our climate, the tree spreads almost exclusively by suckers. Seedlings are rarely found. Suckering, on the other hand, can be prolific.
Local concentrations of Wild Service
The Friends of Fineshade have recorded over 130 individual trees dotted around Fineshade Woods. These occur in 62 different locations, both in the known Ancient Woodland sections, and also in some of the recent plantations. You can read more about Fineshade's Wild Service trees and attempts to propagate them from seed here. www.fineshade.org.uk/wild-service
The species has also survived in some of the wide forest rides in Bedford Purlieus National Nature Reserve.
This mature specimen in un-managed Ancient Woodland is surrounded by young suckers
Use of the timber
The timber of the wild service is hard, close-grained, durable and resistant to splitting and warping; it was also accordingly prized by millwrights for making mill cogs. It was traditionally used to make items such as measuring instruments, musical instruments and snooker cues. In 1900, at the Paris World Exhibition, it was voted the most beautiful wood in the world. In continental Europe it is still extremely valuable and is now used mostly for high quality veneers. Despite this it has often been neglected from UK tree nurseries and tree planting schemes.
In order to produce timber with the right characteristics for each of these uses, care has to be taken to grow the trees in particular ways. This is where the science and art of forestry comes in, as it does when growing any species for use – if thinning, pruning etc are carried where necessary, low branching and forked growth (which makes the timber unsuitable for the uses above) can be avoided.
Thought also needs to be given to what other species are planted with it, as different tree species grow at different rates. Although it can hang on as a shaded understory tree, Wild Service really thrives in more open woodland. In fact, in parts of Europe such as Austria, it was traditionally grown as coppice, both as the cut underwood and as the standard trees. There doesn’t seem to be any tradition of that in the UK, but perhaps there could be in the future?
To help tree nurseries be better informed, a Seed Source Trial has been established by Woodland Heritage, Heart of England Forest and several large estates to make a strong case for the Wild Service Tree by large scale planting from seed. There are fairly few recognised pests and diseases affecting this species, which may do well with a warming climate.
A single tree planted on former farmland in Fineshade Wood. In such circumstances the trees typically grow to this shape.
The Wild Service tree is an icon both of our local ancient woodlands and of a potential and profitable future
– a great emblem for Rockingham Forest Vision.
More reading about Wild Service trees
The distribution of the Wild Service Tree, Sorbus torminalis (L.) Crantz, in the British Isles. P.Roper (1993), summarising a survey initiated by the Botanical Society of the British Isles and the Biological Records Centre in 1974
Biological Flora of British isles: Sorbus torminalis by Peter A. Thomas
A much more recent and full account
Thomas, P.A. (2017), Biological Flora of the British Isles: Sorbus torminalis. J Ecol, 105: 1806-1831. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.12857
Wild Service trees and Redwings
Blog article by local nurseryman, Hugh Dorrington