Berried Treasure: the Wild Service Tree

Around my neck of the woods there are many fine Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) street trees now super-abundantly laden with ripe, red berries and leaves beginning to take on autumnal hues.

With these local fruity indicators appearing, it was time, I thought, to go on my annual quest for chequers, the semi-mythical fruit of the exquisitely rare Wild Service tree (Sorbus torminalis), a member of the same genus. Many half remembered recipes and uses of it’s elusive brown berries are documented; chequers could be found for sale in produce markets only a century ago when it was recommended as a dessert fruit. A dictionary definition of the eighteenth century claims that ‘sorb apples’ are “good to purge watery humours and against the scurvy” (From Patrick Roper‘s ‘Chequer’ book publised by Sage Press, 2004).

The historical record is clearly mixed, the fruit must be an acquired taste.

Chequers on Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis)
Anyone for chequers: The fruit of a Wild Service Tree high in the branches and safely out of reach in Pound Wood, Thundersley, Essex

My own interests in these pomes (beyond the nerdy) are culinary and propagatory. I have never dared taste the few shriveled specimens I have laid hands on but am fascinated by their traditional use in flavouring liqueurs and beer. Here’s a Wild Service vodka recipe from Patrick’s Sorbus website that I hope to try when that elusive chequer glut appears.

Recipe for ‘Aufgesetzten aus Elsbeeren’

To make the Aufgesetzten pound 400 grams of wild service berries in a non-metallic vessel. Let the pounded pulp stand and ferment in a warm place for a week then put the pulp in a linen cloth (jelly bag) and squeeze the juice out.

Mix the juice with an equal quantity of vodka (at least 40% alcohol by volume), then mix the remaining pulp with 1/4 litre of vodka and filter the liquid off from this after two weeks.

Mix the two juices together and stir in three tablespoons of honey.

Leave at room temperature for one year before drinking.

From Rowans, Whitebeams and Service Trees, a translation from the original German recipe at Die Elsbeere

Nor have I had any success with propagation – the fruits should be bletted and their seeds may need to freeze or pass through the gut of a wood pigeon before they become fertile for all I know, but I am willing to continue trying.

So, intent on harvesting for these ends, I headed for South East Essex, an unlikely WST hotspot. Just off the A127 Southend Arterial Road I located the Pound Wood nature reserve.

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) coppice
Hard as nails: Hornbeam coppice represents the more typical vegetation of Pound Wood

It’s a gorgeous place with hard, twisted and fluted hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) coppice, thrusting chestnuts (Castanea sativa), handsome oak (Quercus Robur) standards, rare Heath Fritillary butterflies and huge wood ant nests. Very few Wild Service Trees though… I have found it in perhaps 5 places and I have looked hard. In Pound Wood I found one tree bearing fruit, a fine specimen with a soaring, unbranched trunk ensuring no unprepared human would attempt plucking the teasing berries from it’s canopy.

The Wild Service is a fascinating tree and has many things going for it: spring blossom, a distinctive leaf shape, fine autumn colouring, an allegedly edible fruit and valuable timber used for fine furniture and (historically, I guess) crossbow manufacture. It would surely make a magnificent street tree competing with it’s Sorbine cousins to soak up our urban pollution.

Check out the entrance to Pound Wood on Google streetview:

13 replies on “Berried Treasure: the Wild Service Tree”

wow… great post! And what a surprise to see this just as we finished posting our own observations on the Rowan tree 🙂 Thanks for visiting our blog so that we could find yours… This is a beautiful blog and we’ll be adding it onto our links in just a moment.

I have a wild service tree in my garden in Gloucester (city). Imported over 20 years ago when 2′ high from a nursery in deepest Sussex (Harting area).

[…] In scientific circles it’s known as Eriolobus trilobatus, and horticulturalists know it as Malus trilobata. It is the only species in the Eriolobus genus, but it vies for attention among well known and cultivated siblings in the Malus (apple) genus. One Greek academic paper explains the taxonomic history outlining previous classifications including as a Hawthorn or a Pear or even a Service Tree: […]

Hello, I have a favourite woodland near me (Kent) that is full of wild service. I am surprised that there is so many fruits this year- never seen so many. Perhaps it has benefitted from the heatwave? I’m going to make some sort of booze with them – will let you know how I get on! I have put some pictures on my Instagram page @dugfired Great blog!

Thank you Claire, I very much look forward to hearing how your wild service booze turns out! My potted tree in London flowered and fruited for the first time this year!

What a delightful post, Paul. You have introduced me to the notion of using these elusive berries in alcoholic drinks. In previous years, I’d only seen a few stray service berries in my local woods but this year there has been an abundance. I see that Patrick Roper in his little booklet mentions their use in ratafia, a term I’d not encountered before. This led me on to further online searches and the potential for using these berries in various spirits. Intriguingly, Richard Mabey seems to indicate that they go well with whisky. I’ve made a wild service berry whisky ratafia and a wild service berry vodka ratafia. I had a guess in terms of quantities but on first sampling the whisky ratafia tastes like a smokey cherry brandy. It is awesome! In my initial enthusiasm, I’m wondering why on earth there is so much talk of sloe gin when whisky ratafia is such a marvelous drink!

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