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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.

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.

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:

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