Thursday, 31 December 2009

Genetic conservation of the True Service (Sorbus domestica)

A very useful account of the true service tree (Sorbus domestica) was written by Peter Rotach of the Department of Forest Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich in 2003 (details at end of this entry).

As well as an excellent illustrated description of the tree, there is much information and recommendations on how best to conserve this globally scarce species.  This rarity, in common with many Sorbus , is discussed by Rotach who regards it as the natural habit of this and other tree species.

Research findings, he says, "suggest that the genetic system of naturally rare species seem to be well adapted to low densities. Long-distance gene flow, dynamic meta-population structures with local
extinction and recolonisation, long-distance migration events through effective seed dispersal and a mixed reproductive system may be key elements for maintaining genetic diversity in rare species like S. domestica.  While vegetative reproduction conserves
genetic diversity even in the smallest populations, long distance pollen and seed dispersal guarantee recolonisation."

Judging by the very restricted distribution of many Sorbus species, long distance migration must, however, be a rare event.

In regard to the uses of true service fruit, Rotach says they were, and still sometimes are, used "for conserving apple cider" as well as for producing "high quality liquors, and for specialist products such as marmalades."  (I wonder if he means eaux-de-vie or ratafia, i.e. liqueur, and a sort of membrillo paste or cotignac rather than a marmalade).

He does not, however, mention that the fruit is still sold, apparently for eating raw, in areas where the tree is well know such as Italy and the south of France.  Nor does he mention cormé, a sort of true service cider (on which I will write at boring length on some future date).

At the end of Rotach's paper there is a useful distribution map and a short list of references.

The map shows that the tree occurs from north central Turkey to Morocco and north to Britain where the Wyre Forest site appears to be the most northerly of any.  The bulk of the trees however occur in Greece, the Balkans, Italy, France and Spain.  As with many tree species, the distribution would seem to indicate that it is tolerant of a wide range of climatic conditions.  While some populations are, no doubt, genetically adapted to their local climate, it seems a bit premature to worry, in the light of the various climate change projections, about the general welfare of trees with such wide distributions .


Rotach P. (2003) EUFORGEN Technical Guidelines for genetic conservation and use for service tree (Sorbus domestica).  International Plant Genetic
Resources Institute, Rome, Italy.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Service trees and shad fish

During my researches on the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) I quickly became aware that there were trees often called services or serviceberries in North America. They are usually known to gardeners as amelanchiers and the word ‘service’ is used mainly for Amelanchier canadensis and related species. The word ‘service’ in America is often pronounced ‘sarvice’ or ‘sarvis’ and this is reminiscent of my father and his friends who, when they were children in south west Essex, UK, in the early 20th century, called wild service fruits ‘sarvers’ or ‘sarvies’.

These North American amelanchiers are not at all like European wild service trees, or much like any other service (Sorbus spp.), though they are in the same plant family, Rosaceae.

Among the various North American names for amelanchiers ‘shadberry’ or ‘shad bush’ and variants are as widely used as ‘serviceberry’ and its variants (Hall, 2002). The only explanation I have seen for the name shadberry is that the tree flowers in a quite striking way when the shad, a migratory fish, are running upstream. As amelanchiers often occur along river banks this seems to be a reasonable explanation.

However, the usual German name for the wild service tree is Elsbeere or Elsebeere and Else in German means ‘shad’, the fish. Thus it seems feasible that, if German settlers in North America had called the amelanchier Elsbeere or Elsebeere, this could have been translated either to ‘serviceberry’ or ‘shadberry’ as English became their first language. The fact that both words have no central break may also be indicative of a German origin.

This does not explain why the early settlers would have called the amelanchier Elsbeere in the first place as it does not resemble the European wild service. A possible explanation is that German Elsebeere also means ‘bird cherry’ (Prunus padus) according to Grimm & Grimm (1854 to 1960) and the European bird cherry is quite similar to the amelanchiers. It is of a similar size and shape, has similar ovoid leaves, white flowers and bunches of black fruit.

If this explanation for the origin of shadberry and serviceberry is correct, one wonders why terms originating with the German-speaking community became those generally used for North American amelanchiers.


Grimm, J. & Grimm, W. (1854-1960) Deutsches Wörterbuch. S. Hirzel, Leipzig.

Hall, J. H. (2002) Dictionary Of American Regional English, Volume IV, P-Sk. Harvard University Press

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Martin Luther and the wild service tree

The Lutheran Church, the Evangelische Landeskirche, in Württemberg, Germany announced in October 2009 their intention to encourage the planting of wild service trees in appropriate places in their area as well as to work to conserve the noctule bat and two scarce species of butterfly.

The Bishop of Württemberg, Dr. h. c. Otfried July, in a speech on 8 October 2009, said that wild services were a sign of our responsibility for our fellow created beings as well as being part of the church’s biodiversity protection project and a symbol of sustainability. He opened the campaign by planting a wild service tree.

The wild service tree has an interesting link with Martin Luther. In 1526 Luther asked in a letter to his friend Johannes Agricola if he could be sent some wild service berries (Elsbeer). This is the earliest recorded use of the word Elsbeer (now normally spelt Elsbeere) in German. Luther wrote in Latin: “remittas oro , ut mespila minuscula, teutonice Elsbeer.” (I beg you to send some of those little medlars called Elsbeer in German).

According to the Lutheran church in Württemberg Luther knew the fruits well and described them as ‘exquisite’. He was also aware of their medicinal properties and wanted some for his wife Katharina von Bora (July, 2009).


July, O. (2009) Speech to mark the Württemberg Evangelische Landeskirche’s participation in the Diversity Action Plan.

Luther, Martin (1526) Ed. Wilhelm Martin Lebrechte De Wette. Dr. Martin Luthers Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken: Vollständig aus den verschiedenen ... Vol.3. Berlin, 1827.