Saturday, 25 December 2010

Antibacterial rowan berries

People in both Finland and Scotland value the berries of rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) for making drinks, preserves and as flavourings.  A team of scientists from the University of Helsinki and the Scottish Crop Research Institute have analysed the composition and bioactivity of phenolic compounds found in the fruit of the wild rowan and four hybrid cultivars and published their results in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

The study shows the phenolic compounds, mostly caffeoylquinic acids, have a marked inhibitory effect on some of the commonest bacteria, such as E. coli, associated with human disorders.

An abstract of the paper is available here:

The hybrid rowans, known as sweet rowans, have, I think, mostly been developed in Russia and the four studied were Burka, (Sorbus aucuparia x {Sorbus aria x Aronia arbutifolia}), Granatnaja (Sorbus aucuparia x Crataegus sanguinea), Titan or Titaan, (Burka x Malus sp. x Pyrus sp.) and Zoltaja (Sorbus aucuparia x Pyrus sp.).

There are several more of these rowan hybrids as, for example, detailed here:

Monday, 13 December 2010

Wild service wood lances

In the Tornoiement de l’antechrist, a poem written in the 13th century in Old French by Norman writer  Huon de Mery there is a passage referring to lances made from the wood of the wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis (alisier in both Old and Modern French):

Lances orent fors et fretées/Qu’Aliance fist d’alisier:/ Et ot chascune fait lier/Le blanc penoncel de sa lance/A .IIII. freisiaus d’Aliance.

My Old French is virtually non-existent, but I have had a shot at translating this thus:

They had decorated lances which the Alliance had made of wild service wood: each one had tied the white pennant to his lance and the four Alliance ribbons.

If anyone can come up with a better version, I would be grateful.

This use of the wood for lances once again reinforces its shatter-proof qualities and also that there must have been a fair amount available for the manufacture of these weapons.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The song of the wild service (Sorbus torminalis)

The wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, has its own song.  Le bois d’alisier (The wild service tree wood) is a folk number from Évelyne Girardon (=Évelyne Beline).  It is based on a traditional French song called Voici La Saint Jean (Midsummer – St John’s Day - is here) and is very widely known both in France and elsewhere.  The festival of St. John is on 24th June and this is sometimes considered as midsummer.  Both 24th June and 23rd June, St. John’s Eve, are associated with various pagan activities such as bonfires and have roots in the pre-Christian past. There appears to be some uncertainty as to the original home of the song, but claims have been made for Jumièges in Upper Normandy, Switzerland and elsewhere. The song has also been exported to North America.

The original Voici La Saint Jean song has no reference to a wild service tree wood or anything like it, so this would seem to be a late addition from Évelyne Girardon or another.

The song can be listened to here:

The reference to the wild service is in the chorus: Vole vole mon coeur au bois d’alisier, vole vole mon coeur (Fly, fly my heart to the wild service tree wood, fly, fly my heart).

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The wood of the wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis

People have asked me about the uses of the wood of the wild service tree and I have mentioned some from time to time in this weblog. To give a little more information I have updated an essay on this topic I wrote some years ago:

The wood of the wild service, Sorbus torminalis.

Patrick Roper, 30 November 2010

"The wood's got a pretty colour to it. When you get an old gentleman and saw it out properly you'll get beautiful stuff". This is how a very experienced Sussex forester described wild service wood to me a few years ago. It is a hard, heavy timber weighing 65lb per cubic foot (1,041 kg per cubic metre) when freshly cut and 48.5 lb per ft3 (776.9 kg per m3) when dry (Loudon, 1838). In seasoned examples the grain is not usually strongly marked and the colour is usually a pale pinkish buff or pale brown. If pinkish it distinguishes it from pear wood, which it otherwise resembles. When seasoned the wood holds its shape well without shrinking or splitting . At one time the timber was highly valued, both here and on the Continent, for turnery, furniture making and cabinet work (Demesure-Musch, B. & Oddou-Muratorio, 2004; Elwes & Henry, 1906); for wooden screws and arrows and especially for pistol and gun-stocks. Anne Pratt, writing in the mid-19th C, says it was preferred to any other wood for the latter purpose and this would appear to have originated in wild service wood having been particularly sought for cross-bow stocks. In various British documents in medieval Latin reference is made to its use in this way, the term aliera being used to describe the tree. (The meaning of aliera is given by Latham (1975 ) in his Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources as "? hawthorn", but following correspondence with me over the matter he is now full agreement that "wild service" would have been meant.) In one account in this dictionary, dating from 1260, reference is made to the fact that two wild service trees were taken from Havering Park in Essex to the Tower of London to make cross-bows for the king[1]. The tree still grows in this area.

In France, Germany and Poland the wood has been used for making stringed musical instruments; for parts of harpsichords and simple wind instruments such as flutes, fifes and flageolets (Drapier, 1993) . It was used also for sheaths for knives, daggers and swords. One correspondent (October 1993) from Billingshurst, West Sussex, has said "I use the wood for various purposes, especially harpsichord jacks, for which it has long been the most favoured species, although pear is more commonly employed as it is more readily available." The wood, and that of the true service, were also widely used for this purpose in France and Switzerland..

The town of Ivry-la-Bataille in Upper Normandy specialised in making "elegant and large" combs from wild service wood and in Germany it was used for weavers' combs. This tradition of comb making is also reported from Ézy-sur-Eure and other places in Upper Normandy: Pendant la belle saison, les habitants cultivaient champs et vignes .... et pendant la mauvaise saison, ils fabriquaient sabots de hêtre et peignes de buis ou d’alisier. [During the warmer months the people cultivate the fields and vines .... and in the colder months they make sabots from beech and combs from box or wild service.].

In rural communities throughout Europe wild service wood was sought after for tool handles and in particular for the striking portion of the flails that were used for threshing corn (Britten & Holland, 1886). As with pear wood, which is still in demand for mallet heads, wild service wood possesses the necessary resistance to splitting, a fact also reflected in its use for making skittles and butchers' chopping blocks. In parts of France the poles for supporting grape vines were made from wild service wood, something paralleled by its occasional use for hop poles in England . The idea was that while the wood was as good, if not better than, other available timbers the trees, before they were cut, provided the bonus of edible fruit.

Where exactly all the artefacts that were made with wild service wood are today is something of a mystery. Many must still exist in museums, collections, antique shops and households but it is plain that their true nature is neither understood nor appreciated. Also, after the passage of time, wild service wood is difficult to distinguish without damaging the artefact and an expert trying to be specific about the timber used in a particular object may mistake it for pear wood. Generally, wild service is classified as 'fruit wood', a description covering apple, pear, cherry and other rosaceous species and widely used in the antique and furniture trades. One remarkable piece of information was sent to me by Henry Green who was a friend of the celebrated Enfield gardener E.A. Bowles. He once showed Bowles a branch of wild service and was told that the tree used to be common in Epping Forest where it was planted to provide timber from which the furniture for the Royal household was made. If there is any truth in this it would be consistent with comments by the German author Bechstein (1810) who described it as his country's most precious and beautiful native wood and eagerly sought by cabinet makers and similar craftsmen. It is used in Germany today for veneers and other purposes.

Today the wood is, not surprisingly, hard to come by, especially in the British Isles, but is in demand to some extent by turners and carvers who appreciate its qualities. I have a very pretty wooden dish given to me by a master carpenter and turned from a piece of S. torminalis wood from a fallen tree. It has a flared grain of the type that is caused by the pressure of a heavy branch where it curves out from the trunk.

Another important use for the timber in the past was in the axles and wheels of carts and carriages and for the wooden cogs used in mill machinery (Du Breuil, 1854). The tree was used by millwrights for this purpose in the Wyre Forest on the Worcestershire/Shropshire border. The species is still not uncommon there along the Dowles Brook where the watermills are situated and it could well have been encouraged to grow in such places (Hickin, 1971). Hanbury (1770) said: "The timber is very valuable, being hard, and useful for millwrights who greatly covet it." In 13th century France the wood was recommended, among others, for barrel making.

The trunk of the wild service can reach 5 metres (16.5 ft) in circumference and often there is a clear run of 6 or 7 metres (20-23 ft) or more from the ground to the first branches. Substantial planks and beams of timber are available from such trees, especially when the heartwood is sound (foresters have told me that this is often not the case: the tree is liable to decay from within). In areas where the species grows well and is, or was, relatively abundant such as the Weald of Kent and Sussex, large trees sometimes arrived at sawmills, and perhaps still do. I know of some recent instances where the timber was planked, but not what happened to it then: who bought it and what it was used for. Writing in the 17th C, John Evelyn (1664) spoke of a house in Surrey which had a room "curiously wainscotted" in wild service wood and in the early 19th C Henry Phillips (1821) said that it was "a very durable wood for buildings that are exposed to a northern aspect". In England, and in mainland Europe the wood was used both for roof-beams and for domestic carpentry (as most woods were) and one informant told me that in England in the past it had been used for gravestones, again a reflection of its durability. It could well be that some of our older houses have structural elements and interior or exterior panelling of wild service wood but in contrast to the situation that would exist with, say, oak or walnut this seems to have gone unrecorded and unremarked.

In addition to its value for making things, wild service has also been used as firewood and for charcoal. One French author recommended planting hedges of it in view of the benefit to be derived from using these as a source of firewood. Taylor P. (pers. comm. 10 Oct 1993) says the tree is highly thought of as firewood by local people in the Billingshurst area of West Sussex. Henry Phillips (1821) says the wood is preferable to that of the whitebeam for both fuel and charcoal and Smith says its value in this respect "when compared with that of beech, is as 1.038 to 1.540 and for charcoal as 1.062 to 1.600". It was also praised by Du Breuil (1850) who said of all the French Sorbi "son charbon est tres estimé". It is tempting to hypothesise that the Iron Age inhabitants of Maiden Castle in Dorset, where wild service charcoal has been identified (Salisbury & Jane, 1940), appreciated this point to the extent that they were prepared to leave the hills for the lowland forest in order to search for the wood. In point of fact, however, it could be that 2,000 years ago the tree grew on the chalk, or its boulder clay cappings, and much closer to this great earthen rampart than it does today. Also the amount involved could have been very small, or intended for some special purpose, and not necessarily brought to the fort specifically for its incendiary qualities.

Although wild service wood is clearly valuable in a number of ways, it is pre-eminent only for the making of harpsichord jacks and, perhaps, for cross-bow and gun stocks, the striking portion of corn flails and mill machinery. Oak is better for barrels, hornbeam for firewood, lime for carving, beech for furniture, alder, willow and buckthorn for charcoal and so on. Had this been otherwise, the wild service might have been more carefully conserved and be much less scarce than it is today, though it does seem to be coming into fashion in mainland Europe for high quality furniture and interior decor.

Finally, I have recently found a useful photo of wild service wood from a French source (Azerti):


Bechstein, J. M. (1810) Forstbotanik: oder, Vollständige Naturgeschichte der deutschen Holzgewächse und einiger fremden. Erfurt, Germany.

Britten, J. & Holland, R. (1886) A Dictionary of English Plant Names. English Dialect Society, London.

Demesure-Musch, B. & Oddou-Muratorio, S. (2004) EUROFORGEN technical guidelines for genetic conservation and use for wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis). International Genetic Resource Institute, Rome.

Drapier, N. (1993) Connaissance du genre Sorbus. Les Sorbus en France : caractères botaniques et généralités. Revue forestière française XLV - 3-1993

Du Breuil, M. A. (1854). Cours élèmentaire theorique et pratique d'arboriculture. Paris.

Elwes, H. J. & Henry, A. (1906). The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland. Volume 1. Privately printed, Edinburgh.

Evelyn, J. (1664) Sylva, Or A Discourse Of Forest-tree and the Propagation of Timber. Royal Society, London.

Hanbury, W. (1770) A Complete Body of Planting and Gardening. London, for the author.

Hickin, N. E (1971) The Natural History of an English Forest: The Wild Life of Wyre. Hutchinson, London.

Latham, R. E. ed. (1975 ) Dictionary of Latin from Medieval Sources. Fascicule 1: A-B. Oxford University Press/British Academy.

Loudon, J. C. (1838) Arboretum et Fruticetum Brittanicum. Published by the author, London.

Phillips, H. (1821) Pomarium Britannicum: an historical and botanical account of fruits known in Great Britain. 2nd edition. T. and J. Allman, London.

Pratt, Anne (1855) The flowering plants, grasses, sedges, and ferns of Great Britain, and their allies the club mosses, pepperworts and horsetails. Vol. II. Frederick Warne, London.

Salisbury, E. J. & Jane, F. W. (1940) Charcoals from Maiden Castle etc. J. Ecol. 28: 2, 310

[1] The king of England at the time was the Plantagenet Henry III and the period was when Simon de Montfort and the barons were rising to power.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A tree by any other name ...

The other day I came across a book called Flore populaire de la Savoie by A. Constantin and P. Gave (Société Florimontane, Annecy, France). This has entries for the whitebeam, which they call Sorbier alouchier among other names, the true service, the rowan, Sorbus chamaemespilus, and the wild service.

Much of the aim of the book is to list the vernacular names for each species in the Savoy area of France, but some background information is also given.

It seems to me, though I could be wrong, that the authors have conflated words and some data for the whitebeam (Sorbus aria) and the wild service (Sorbus torminalis) and other sorbs. Apart from sorbier alouchier, they call the whitebeam alouchier, alisier commun, alisier blanc and plain alisier, alier and alii. They say the berries are called alises or alizes but I have normally associated these words only with the wild service fruit (Sorbus torminalis) which is often, these days, called alisier torminal in French literature.

Constantin & Gave call the wild service sorbier torminal, sorbier antidysentérique, sorbier aux tranchées, alisier des bois, faux sycomore and sorbi. The term sorbier aux tranchées is interesting and translates as ‘service of the trenches’. Perhaps tranchées pare-feu, a woodland firebreak, is meant as, maybe, wild services were more inclined to grow along these. For the true service (Sorbus domestica) they give sorbier domestique, sorbier cultivé, cormier and sourbi.

The rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) in addition to the usual sorbier des oiseleurs and related terms there are many words begining with t – tiémé, tmé, tourné, tremélä, témel and with c – cmélö, cmélä. One word frênêlä seems to be related to frêne, the modern French for an ash tree (Fraxinus) and, presumably, cognate with English ‘mountain ash’.

There is, I have to say, similar vernacular name confusion in English.

Referring to the whitebeam Constatin & Gave write “alises (in the sense of whitebeam berries) make an excellent eau-de-vie called eau-de-vie d’ali.” They also say of these fruit ”Formerly, when in the high valleys of Beaufort and La Clusaz people still ate bread of barley or oats, care was taken to pick the alises and dry them so they could then be incorporated into the bread dough.” Whitebeam berries have often been used as a flour substitute or additive all over Europe, but not, generally wild service berries.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Sorbus on the Isle of Man

The story of Sorbus in the Isle of Man is a curious one.  Rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, seems to be common and indigenous and there are a number of garden escape species.  For a while it was thought that a tree referable to Sorbus admonitor, or Sorbus devoniensis (both Devon specialities) grew there, but I think this is now regarded as an example of Sorbus croceocarpa, one of the aliens.

The wild service, Sorbus torminalis, has not been recorded from the Isle of Man, although it does have a local Manx name

There is an entry for the wild service in the Manx Wiki:        Of interest if anyone wants to see a sample of the Manx language.  The wild service is called 'billey greimmey'.  'Billey' simply means tree, but the word 'greimmey' has these meanings: grasp, seize, grab, clutch, catch, hold, snap, stick, bite, lock in, stitch, snatching, adhere, snatch, jam, attach, stitch up, pin on, nab, gripping, seizing, grip, adhesion, tooth, fishing tackle, adherence (of person), monopolization.

Perhaps 'billey greimmey' is a Manxification of  'griping-fruited' service tree', one of the many English names for the wild service.  Or maybe 'the tasty bite tree'.  I suspect it is a relatively recent translation from English.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Mountain ash alchemy

The Finns are at it again.  Not content with making an intoxicating drink from Sorbus berries, they are now using an extract of the leaves to obtain gold a silver nano particles:

Bioprospective of Sorbus aucuparia leaf extract in development of silver and gold nanocolloids

by Shashi Prabha Dubey, Manu Lahtinen, Heikki Särkkä and Mika Sillanpää in Science Direct (2010).


At the present time the bioprospective field is a  dynamic area of research. The rapid biosynthesis of silver and gold nanoparticles without using toxic chemicals is reported here. Sorbus aucuparia is omnipresent in Europe. The aqueous leaves extract of the plant were used as reducing agent for the synthesis of silver and gold nanoparticles from their salt solutions. The synthesized nanoparticles were spherical, triangular and hexagonal in shape with an average size of 16 and 18 nm for silver and gold, respectively. Different extract quantities, metal concentrations, temperatures and contact times were investigated to find their effect on nanoparticles synthesis. The resulting silver and gold nanoparticles were characterized by transmission electron microscopy (TEM), UV–vis spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction (XRD), energy dispersive X-ray (EDX) and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). The concentration of residual silver and gold ions was measured by Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) spectroscopy. Silver and gold nanoparticle suspensions gave maximum UV–vis absorbance at 446 and 560 nm, respectively. The XRD data illustrated characteristic diffraction patterns of the elemental silver and gold phases and the average size of the crystallites were estimated from the peak profiles by Scherrer method. FTIR spectra of the leaf extract before and after the development of nanoparticles were determined to allow identification of possible functional groups responsible for the conversion of metal ions to metal nanoparticles.

Russian rowan berries

Russian Food Direct offer 50 gram cartons of rowan berries (presumably dried) mainly, it seems, for their health giving properties.

On their web site it says of this species:

Its fruit contains carotene, ascorbic acid (up to 92 mg%), vitamin E, essential oil, malic, citric acid, bitter and tannins, sugars, pigments, alcohol sorbitol, antibacterial substances.

Sorbus fruits are very rich in vitamin C and other vitamins and important substances. Sorbus fruits are used as polyvitaminic substance. The ripe berries furnish an acidulous and astringent gargle for sore throats and inflamed tonsils. For their anti-scorbutic properties, they have been used in scurvy. The astringent infusion is used as a remedy in haemorrhoids and strangury. In herbal medicine, a decoction of the bark is given for diarrhoea and used as a vaginal injection in leucorrhoea.

I am surprised they are not better known for these medicinal purposes.

Sorbus drink on YouTube

There are some clips on YouTube from Finland about their somewhat dodgy Sorbus drink.  One does not have to have any knowledge of Finnish to appreciate the slightly sleazy atmosphere with which the drink is associated.

There is more on Sorbus as a drink below.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Chequered Past beer

Thanks to the generosity of brewer Bob Mitchell (Son of Sid Brewery, The Chequers, Little Gransden) I am the proud possessor of a bottle of the limited edition beer called 'Chequered Past' (6% alcohol by volume).

This has been brewed from wild service berries (Sorbus torminalis), spelt wheat and autumn honey to create, according to the label an "autumn red colour and smooth, rich, fruity flavour." So far as I know this is the only British beverage that has been professionally made using wild service berries for many years. The word 'Chequers' used for the tree is, however, associated with at least some of the many Chequers Inns in Britain and I think there is no doubt that various drinks were made from the berries in the past.

Problem now is whether to open the bottle and drink the contents or keep it intact: I'll think about it, though the label says "best before the end of August 2011."

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Genetic conservation of the wild service

There is a useful on-line 6-page paper on the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) and its conservation here:

Demesure-Musch, B. & Oddou-Muratorio, S. (2004)  EUFORGEN Technical Guidelines for genetic conservation and use for wild service tree (Sorbus
  International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy.

The illustrated text covers a general description of the tree, its economic importance, its global distribution (with an excellent map) and, of course, material in regard to its conservation.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Constituents of Latvian rowan berries

Research workers in Latvia have revealed (2009) high levels of ascorbic acid and other beneficial compounds in the fruits of many cultivars and hybrids of the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia).

The authors point out that the first sweet rowan berry clones were selected in the Sudety mountain area in what is now the Czech Republic.  In Russia the celebrated plant geneticist Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin started a breeding program for sweet rowan berries at the beginning of the 20th century and this resulted in hybrids of the rowan with aronia, apple, medlar and pear species.

The rowans studied in Latvia included the unimproved wild rowan, and the cultivars 'Rosina', 'Rosina Variegata', Zholtaya and Krasnaya Krupnaya as well as several of the hybrids.

The highest content of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) was found in the two 'Rosina' cultivars, but all did well and were rich in a wide range of other beneficial compounds.

Full details are below (the text is in English as well as Latvian.)


Kampus, K. et al. (2009)  Biochemical composition and antiradical activity of Rowanberry (Sorbus L.) and hybrids with different Rosaceae cultivars.  Agronomijas Vestis (Latvian Journal of Agronomy) No. 12 (2009): 59-64.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

New book on British Sorbus species

In early summer 2010 the Botanical Society of the British Isles will be publishing Whitebeams, Rowans and Service Trees of Britain and Ireland.  A monograph of Sorbus L. in Britain and Ireland by
T. C. G. Rich, L. Houston, A. Robertson and M. C. F. Proctor with the help of D. C. G. Cann, A. J. Lockton and D. T. Price.

This important work will give comprehensive accounts, with photos, maps and diagrams, of the 52 native or naturalised Sorbus taxa in Britain and Ireland and will be the standard guide for many years to come.

Details are available here:

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A new study of Sorbus in the Avon Gorge, Bristol

Shanna Ludwig at the School of Biological Sciences of the University of Bristol is embarking on a PhD research project on "Breeding systems, pollen flow, and continuing evolution in Avon Gorge Sorbus."

On her web site Ludwig points out that 19 Sorbus taxa including endemics and hybrids have been recorded from the Gorge and that four species are on the IUCN Red List of endangered plants.

She also gives a brief but fascinating account of some of the reproductive permutations of the trees that result in such a complex array of taxa in one area.  The endemic Bristol whitebeam (Sorbus bristoliensis) for example, apparently needs pollen from the common whitebeam (Sorbus aria) to produce viable seed via a process known as pseudogamy.

W. O. Focke, a German doctor who did much work on plant breeding in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, defined pseudogamy as the process where pollen of a different species from the mother tree simply stimulates the production of the outer parts of the fruit within which a parthenogenetic, unfertilised but viable seed is able to develop.

Ludwig points out that the pollination systems employed by the various Sorbus species are pivotal to their continuing evolutionary process.  Her research should therefore make an important contribution to the rapidly escalating debate on the causes of evolution being conducted with growing stridency globally among science and philosophy academics and (Heaven forfend) creationists, as well as giving a better understanding of this fascinating diversity of trees in the Avon Gorge.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Coppiced wild service

On 2 March this year I posted a short piece about coppiced rowan.

Yesterday I found a coppiced wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) on a bank by an ancient pond in an ancient wood in the parish of Whatlington here in East Sussex.

20100317 Wild service Footlands Wood 015

This is typical of the kind of place the wild service grows in the Weald and often there are only one or two plants.  It is difficult not to believe that local people had a need for just small quantities of the wood or fruit

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Descriptive list of Sorbus drinks

This list contains all the drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, I have so far come across that are wholly or partly made from the various species of Sorbus, usually the fruit. There must be many more, particularly in central and eastern Asia and I would like to hear from anyone who knows of any.
Broadly there are 11 types of drink that can be made from Sorbi:
  • Non-alcoholic fruit juices
  • Herbal teas and coffee substitutes
  • Ciders – see below – made by fermenting expressed juice
  • Ciders made by macerating fruit in water and fermenting
  • Ciders made from other fruit with Sorbus fruit or juice added
  • Country ‘wines’ using Sorbus fruit.
  • Beers with Sorbus fruit or juice added
  • Bitters where Sorbus juice is an important ingredient
  • Fortified wines flavoured with fruit or juice of Sorbi.
  • Spirits such as brandy, vodka, schnapps or gin flavoured with Sorbus fruit or juice
  • Spirits distilled from fermented Sorbus fruit.
These range from some of the most highly regarded and expensive drinks to beverages largely favoured by often heavy drinking poor people.
Most Sorbus fruit contain chemicals that help to clear and preserve other alcoholic drinks and they are important for this as well as for the flavour, astringency, bitterness and extra sugars they add.
I have taken the word ‘cider’ to mean the fermented juice of any fruit. ‘Cider’ did not originally mean a drink made from apples. The word comes from Late Latin sicera, a rendition of the biblical Hebrew shekhar, a word used for any strong drink. Thus perry is quite correctly ‘pear cider’ a point made in the 16th century by French author Charles Estienne: “faire le cidre, pommé, peré, cormé.” (To make apple, pear, service cider.)
Alisier. An eau-de-vie made from wild service berries by fermentation or maceration, followed by distillation and a reduction of alcoholic strength. The drink produced in Alsace by Miclo and called 'alisier' appears to be distilled from whitebeam berries (Sorbus aria): Ce sont les fruits (rouge orangé) de l’alisier blanc qui sont distillés. Another web site says that wild service berries are like blueberries, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in what is on offer.
Alizé. Brand name of a modern Cognac brandy with various versions flavoured with different combinations of fruit juice. The resemblance of the name to ‘alizier’, one of the French words for the wild service, seems to be coincidental.
Aliziergeist. A spirit or eau-de-vie distilled from the berries of the wild service, Sorbus torminalis, in Germany, Austria and Alsace Lorraine. It has a high quality reputation and an element of almond or marzipan in its taste, presumably from the contribution made by the seeds. See Elsbeerenbrand below.
Aufgesetzten aus Elsbeeren. A flavoured vodka made with wild service berries: 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: More in the entry 'Wild service vodka' on 24 April 2011.
Boisson de cormes. A name for the cormé q.v. made in the Poitiers region of France by fermenting true service fruit, Sorbus domestica, with sugar and water. It was apparently popular and widely used by poorer people who could not afford wine. There is a good account here:
Checker. This old recipe, which describes, perhaps, more of a food than a drink, comes from the Chequers Inn at Smarden in Kent, UK. Checkers or chequers is a local name for the fruit of the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis). “Pick off in bunches in October. Hang on string like onions (look like swarm of bees) hang till ripe. Cut off with scissors close to checkers (do not pull out). Put in stone glass jars. Put sugar on 1lb-5lb checkers. Shake up well. Keep airtight until juice comes out to top. The longer kept the better. Can add brandy. Then eat.”
Chequered Past beer. A drink brewed in 2009/10 by Bob Mitchell, landlord of The Chequers pub at Little Gransden in Huntingdonshire. He used spelt wheat, honey and wild service fruit (Sorbus torminalis) in this attempt to create what he believed was a long lost drink associated with Chequers pubs. While English beer may have been flavoured or brewed with wild service berries or juice, especially before the general use of hops, Mitchell is essentially conflating two ideas (1) that chequer trees were associated with Chequers inns and (2) that wild service berries were associated with beer. The first is true of some Chequers pubs, though the reason uncertain, the second largely derives from the notion that ‘service’, as used for species of Sorbus, is a corruption of Latin cerevisia meaning beer (which it is not).
Cider from Alisier de Fontainebleau.  The service tree of Fontainbleau, Sorbus latifolia, is well-known from the Forest of Fontainebleau near Paris, France, but grows elsewhere in Europe and is widely naturalised.  It may have originated as a hybrid between Sorbus torminalis and S. aria.  In the 1838 Encyclopédie du Dix-Neuvième Siècle. Vol 2. (Bureau de l'Encyclopédie du XIX Siècle, Paris) it says of this tree "A Fontainebleau, où ils abondent,on en fait une espèce de cidre.  This is an interesting observation as it implies that in France different kinds of 'cider' could, and probably were, made from any brown or orange fruited species of Sorbus.
Cormé. Cormé, also known as ‘boisson de cormes’ is a drink once made widely in France and Switzerland from true service fruit, Sorbus domestica, that are just ripening, but still firm. These are crushed and mixed with water and fermented in barrels to make a cider-like beverage that is drunk young. It was often regarded as a drink for poor people who could not afford wine. It has also been called sorbium and vin de cormier. There does not seem to be any appreciable production today, though there are some who remember the drink in the mid-20th century.
Randle Cotgrave (1611) in his Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues said it was "A drinke, or wine made of the sorbe apple; it surpasses in goodness Perrie, or Cider; and comes neerest, of any of those kinds, unto white wine."
A rather puzzling aspect is that true service trees do not seem to have been common enough to produce any substantial quantity of cormé and it also is generally described as not keeping well, so it may have been a brief seasonal delight.
It is generally agreed that the word for ‘beer’ in the old Celtic Gaulish language of France was curmi. This is usually regarded as cognate with cormé. The various ramifications of this have engendered a lengthy debate amongst linguists and beer experts
Diod griafol
In North Wales rowan berries were fermented in water to make diod griafol (rowan drink) which John Evelyn, the 17th C author famous for his writings on trees (as well as his diary), said was ‘an incomparable drink’. This it may well have been, but Evelyn was very fond of the word ‘incomparable’, so caution in regard to the quality of this beverage is advised, though it was undoubtedly alcoholic and, according to some of the sources cited below, could be very good.
In his Papers (1814-17) John Macculloch wrote “A liquor is brewed from the berries of the mountain ash, in North Wales called diod griàfol, by only crushing and putting water to them. After standing for a fortnight it is fit for use, its flavour somewhat resembles perry.”See:
I have seen several descriptions like this and they do seem to have been copied from an earlier source. They all, for example, say the flavour was like perry.
William Bingley (1804) writing of a visit he made to the Snowdon area of North Wales between 1798 and 1801 said "I observed near a cottage in Cwm Llan, that several children were employed in gathering the berries of the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia of Linnaeus). On enquiring of the guide to what purpose this was done, he informed me that the Welsh people brew from them a liquor, which they call Diod griafol. This, he said, was done merely by crushing the berries and putting water to them, which, after a fortnight, is drawn off for use. The flavour, as I understand him, was somewhat like that of perry."
Joseph Cradock writing of the Cader Idris area in 1828 says "Being very thirsty with heat and fatigue, I inquired for some goat's milk, but to no purpose; the guide however, informed me that he could procure me from a neighbouring cottage a liquor peculiar to that part of North Wales, which infinitely exceeded Stirom cyder; I tasted it, and found it was made of mountain-ash berries and crabs and sloes; it should remain half a year in the vessel before it is bottled off, and if it were then kept to a proper age it would not be altogether contemptible." This sounds like something different from diod griafol and was perhaps a kind of cider made from the pressed juice of the wild fruits mentioned.
The 'Stirom cyder' mentioned by Cradock is an interesting beverage. John Philips (1791) refers to it in his poem Cider. In a footnote to the line, Charles Dunster writes of stirom that "Cider made of the Stire apple, of which there are great plantations in the Forest of Dean, Glocestershire, is the strongest Cider that is made, and will keep number of years in the highest perfection."
Bucknall (1802) writes that "The Stire Apple was accidentally raised in the Forest of Dean, Glocestershire, and took the name of Forest Stire. The cider made from this apple was the strongest the country ever produced according to any living record."
There is a picture of the forest stire apple on the second page here:
Going back to diod griafol, Boulger in Familiar Trees says of the rowan that in Wales “the berries are most commonly only made into an infusion.”
In Doom of the Griffiths, (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1858) Elizabeth Gaskell refers to a liquor called "diod griafol (made from the berries of the Sorbus aucuparia, infused in water and then fermented)”. Mrs Gaskell spent her honeymoon in North Wales staying with her uncle and was therefore likely to have had direct knowledge of this drink.
Finally, Thomas Pennant (1885), writing of the late 18th or early 19th C said, in Welsh "Y dosparth tlotaf o'r trigolion a wnant fath o ddiod o honi, yr hon a elwir diod griafol, trwy ferwi y grawn mewn dwfr." (The poorest class of local people make a kind of drink, which is called diod griafol (rowan drink), by boiling the berries in water.) The word ferwi, a mutation of berwi normally means 'boil', but can mean 'bubble', 'brew', 'ferment' etc. and I suspect Pennant meant the word in the latter sense rather than actual boiling.
It does appear that at one time this drink was widespread and well-known in North Wales, but little information has apparently been recorded about it.

Ebereschengeist. A spirit (Geist) distilled from rowan (Eberesche) berries in Germany and probably elsewhere. About 40% alcohol by volume.
Ebereschensaft or Ebereschen-Nektar. There are several recipes for ‘rowan juice’. Essentially they involve freezing and boiling the fresh or dried berries and, sometimes, adding sugar. A non-alcoholic rowanberry juice called Ebereschen-Nektar “with many valuable bioactive substances” is marketed under the brand name ‘Silva Sana’ from Naheland along the Saar river in Germany.
Elsbeerbrand is the same as Elsbeerenbrand and Aliziergeist q.v., the spirit distilled from wild service fruit (Sorbus torminalis) in Germany and Alsace . It has an aroma reminiscent of marzipan, no doubt from the almond-smelling cyanide in the seeds. It is a colourless liquid with a distinctive bouquet, very strong and, to my palate, somewhat harsh and dry. The Grand Larousse encyclopaedia, however, praises the drink highly describing it as "très rare, d'une exquise delicatesse .... très parfumée". Other names include eau d'alizier, alisier, or alysier . It has also been described as the Queen of Drinks.
Elsbeerenbrand. Fruit spirit or eau-de-vie traditionally produced from the wild service (Sorbus torminalis) in Lower Austria and virtually identical to Elsbeerbrand above. For the production of the spirit the berries are mashed and fermented by adding water and yeast at a temperature of about 20o C. The double-distilled fruit spirit (about 60% vol. ethyl alcohol) is diluted with distilled water as the minimum alcohol content by volume has to be 42%. After that, the fruit spirit is stored for maturing under dark and not too warm conditions for at least one year. Elsbeerenbrand has a distinct smell resembling almonds. It is an great speciality as the amount available is limited by the fact that the trees have long intervals without fruiting usually only delivering a good harvest only every 7 years with 100 litres of mash yielding only 3 litres of fruit spirit.
Eau de vie d’alizier. A spirit, the same as Elsbeerbrand, distilled from fruit of the wild service. La boutique du Musée des Eaux de Vie de Lapoutroie who make it say it is a rare spirit with a nutty or bitter almond taste and that it goes well with pistachio ice cream.
Eau de vie d’alisier blanc. A spirit distilled from fruit of the whitebeam (Sorbus aria). La boutique du Musée des Eaux de Vie de Lapoutroie say the fruit of the whitebeam (l’alisier blanc) is good for distillation and have, presumably, made some
Eau de vie d’alisier de Fontainebleau. A spirit distilled from fruit of the service tree of Fontainebleau (Sorbus latifolia). La boutique du Musée des Eaux de Vie de Lapoutroie say the fruit of the Fontainebleau service (Sorbus latifolia; l’alisier de Fontainebleau) is good for distillation and have, presumably, made some.
Eau de vie d’alisier de Mougeot. A spirit distilled from fruit of Mougeot’s whitebeam (Sorbus mougeotii). La boutique du Musée des Eaux de Vie de Lapoutroie say the fruit of Mougeot’s whitebeam (l’alisier de Mougeot) is good for distillation and have, presumably, made some.
Eau de vie de cormes. Les Vergers de Fanny (Fanny’s Orchards) in the Sarthe Department, N W France, make an eau de vie from true service fruit (Sorbus domestica) which they describe as “la plus suptile (sic) et la plus originale l'eau de vie de Cormes.”
Eau de vie de sorbier de oiselleurs. A spirit distilled from fruit of the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) by La boutique du Musée des Eaux de Vie de Lapoutroie. Alcohol volume 43%.
Gammel Dansk. Rowan berries are an important ingredient in the Danish bitters called ‘Gammel Dansk’ which also contains a wide range of herbs and spices. This is a popular drink in Denmark though it was only created in 1964.
Jarzebiak. A Polish dry fruit vodka of “rectified spirits, quality wine distillates, infusion of dried tropical fruits and with extracts of rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) picked after the first frost. There are numerous variants of this available from Poland.

Jarcebinka. A Czech rowan-based, often bitter-tasting spirit drink, essentially a vodka flavoured with rowan berries or their juice.
Liqueur d'alise. See wild service liqueur below.
Liqueur de fruits de l'alisier domestique (cormier). A drink made by steeping true service fruit (Sorbus domestica) in a 50:50 mixture of vodka (alcool blanc) and water, with sugar, vanilla and chopped almonds added. It is kept for several months before drinking. See:
Marc de Alisier. An eau de vie sold by the Belgian firm Dulst who describe it as "Marc de Alisier - Dom Klur - Elsbessenboom Geestrijke drank, EAU DE VIE". Elsbessenboom is a Flemish word for the wild service tree, but the drink may be made elsewhere than Belgium - in Lorraine, France for example.
Mountain ash wine. An American recipe for a mountain ash 'wine' using the fruit of Sorbus americana, S. decora, S. scopulina or S. sitchensis is given by Jack Keller at It seems much like European country wines made with Sorbus aucuparia fruit.
Pihlakavein. An Estonian drink, literally ‘rowan wine’. It is made by pressing the juice from the crushed fruit and fermenting it. Some pihlakavein has the alcohol percentage of sherry or port and must therefore be fortified with a spirit, maybe vodka or brandy, or even the spirit distilled from fermented rowan berries. Pihlakavein seems to have a good reputation in Estonia unlike the rather similar Sorbus (q.v.), a Finnish fortified wine flavoured with rowan juice.
Rowanberry coffee. Roasted rowanberries are said to make an excellent coffee (unlikely). Houbrechts (1996)writes “Pour boiling water over one tablespoon of berries and let steep for ten minutes.”
Rowanberry syrup. This is a syrup that is commonly used in Russia to flavour vodka-based drinks. It also makes a tasty and rather different topping for pancakes and waffles. Salt is included to counteract the bitterness.
Rowanberry wine. A traditional British country wine made by fermenting rowanberries (Sorbus aucuparia) with grape juice, lemons, sultanas, ginger and tea.

Rowan blossom tea. A Dutch source suggests that tea made by pouring boiling water over rowan blossoms is good for lung complaints:
Rowan cider. In the state of Hesse in Germany the fruit of the rowan is used in cider production by a few small ‘Kelterer’ (wine pressers) “in a similar way to the service tree.” This could be analogous to the Estonian pihlakavein (q.v.) or, more likely, to Speierling-Apfelwein (q.v.) from Hesse itself.
Rowan gin. “In Germany the berries are put into Dutch gin.” This line is repeated in many places on the Internet, but I have not yet found and other details.
Rowan punch. John Lightfoot, an 18th century English naturalist who wrote the two volume Flora Scotica published in 1777, said of rowan berries that "in the island of Jura they use the juice as an acid for punch." Scottish punch was/is a sweetened mixture of whiskey diluted with water or cold tea and flavoured with lemon and mint. The rowan berry juice was, perhaps, a substitute for lemons (or vice versa). In some subsequent references to this ‘Jura’ has come out as ‘Java’. See:
Rowan schnapps. Danish rowan schnapps is made with fresh, fully ripe rowan berries. It has “a unique, sweet-acid and slightly bitter taste with notes of crab apple, rose hip, and a little strawberry. The colour is pale red.” European Schnapps (spelt Schnaps in German) is distilled from fermented fruit with no added sugar and flavoured afterwards. American schnapps are liqueurs.
The Danish rowan schnapps could be distilled from rowan berries, or made with another spirit and flavoured with rowan berries.
Rjabina Zimnaja. A traditional Belarusian rowan drink. See Ryabina Zimnyaja below.
Ryabina na konyake and Rjabina s Konjakom. A fortified rowan drink from Belarus. It contains water, grain spirit, rowanberry juice drink, sugar, cognac and caramel. 24% to 40% alcohol by volume. See here:
Ryabina Zimnyaja. Winter ryabina, a type of Belarusian fortified rowanberry drink which also includes sugar, honey and, so the manufacturers claim, flower pollen. 20% alcohol by volume.
Sechsämtertropfen. A wild berry liqueur made by Schwarze & Schlichte in Westphalia, Germany. A high proportion of rowan berry juice gives Sechsämtertropfen its characteristic spicy bitter flavour.
Skovlyst Sorbus Ale (festival exclusive) A Danish amber ale with moderate body and bitterness made by Bryggeri Skovlyst for the 2008 European Beer Festival. The beer is brewed with the addition of rowan berry juice, which gives a mild bitterness. Light spicy hop aroma. Alcohol Strength 5.8% vol.
Sorbette. A schnapps distilled in Germany and Austria from the fruit of the true service tree (Sorbus domestica). Since the fruits are difficult to obtain, the price is higher than that of other distilled spirits. The name, however, is said to be French.
Sorbier. An eau-de-vie made by Miclo in Alsace. Although the manufacturers call the fruit 'cormes' (true services), they write of them as though they are rowan berries (sorbier des oiseleurs): Les baies ou cormes sont très appréciées des oiseaux, d’où son nom de sorbier des oiseleurs.
Sorbus. A Finnish sweet fortified wine flavoured with rowan berry juice. It has a somewhat disreputable image. One source describes it as “very popular among winos, street people, punks, skinheads, thugs, troublemakers etc.” There is a Finnish ‘drunk punk’ rock band, Yhdyskuntajäte, who feature a picture of rowan berries on one of their record sleeves and have a track on the disc called ‘Sorbus’ celebrating the drink. The drink was made by Altia between 1935 and 1 January 2011 when its manufacture ceased to the disappointment of some of its fans.
Sorbus ale.  See Skovlyst Sorbus Ale.
Speierling-Apfelwein. German cider (Apfelwein), a speciality of Hesse state, with 1-3% juice from true service fruit (sorb apples) added is said to be “one of the most popular varieties of cider” in Germany. It makes the drink “fruity, clear and better keeping”. Quince, blackthorn and rowan fruit juices are also sometimes added to cider in Germany. “Although it is difficult for the non-initiate to detect any difference in the end product, for many people from Hesse this rare supplement of true service juice contributes much to the lore and mystique of the beverage.”
Treutter (2010) points out that apple juice producers in some regions of Germany use the juice of the proanthocyanidin rich Sorbus domestica fruits as a taste improving additive.
Sperbelschnaps. A spirit distilled from the ripe fruit of the true service, Sorbus domestica. It is the same as Sorbette (q.v.).

Speierlingsschnaps. See Sorbette.
Swedish whitebeam drinks. In his Flora Oeconomica Linnaeus wrote that after drying, a spirit could be distilled and a drink brewed from the fruit (Anderberg & Anderberg, 2010). This may have been a kind of schnapps or brännvin as such distilled spirits are known in Sweden.

True service cider (see Speierling-Apfelwein)
Vogelbeerschnaps. A spirit distilled from rowan berries, especially in the Austrian provinces of Tyrol and Styria. It is characterized by “a subtle note of bitter almonds and a distinct, intense, long-lasting flavour. In folk-medicine Vogelbeerschnaps is much valued. It is reputed to be a remedy against common cold, rheumatism, diabetes, kidney and urinary diseases and it is said to stimulate metabolism.”
Vugelbeerschnaps. A spirit distilled from the juice (Saft) of rowan berries. ‘Vugelbeer’ is a German dialect word for the rowan, which is sometimes known in standard German as Vogelbeere or Vogelbeerbaum, literally the ‘bird berry tree’. See here:
Wild service cider. Of wild service fruit Calvel (1831) writes: “On en peut faire de la boisson, soit au pressoir, soit en râpé.” (A drink can be made with the pressed juice or the crushed fruit). The crushed fruit was, presumably, mixed with water, though it would have been possible to distil it. Estienne (1586) also wrote of the wild service that “one can press juice from the pounded and crushed fruit. This is very sweet and like unfermented grape juice but keeps only for ten or twelve days.”
Wild service liqueurs. Several liqueurs or ratafias are, or have been, made using the fruit of the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis). Generally the fruit are steeped in a jar with brandy or some other spirit, sugar is added and the whole jar kept for an appropriate number of months to allow the flavour of the fruit to infuse into the spirit. Cinnamon and other ingredients are sometimes added. See Checker above.
Wild strawberry and Sorbus megalocorpa tea. In Bulgaria a fruit tea is made commercially using wood strawberries and the fruit of Sorbus megalocorpa (sic). S. ‘megalocorpa’ will refer to Photinia megalocarpa (aka Aronia megalocarpa), the black chokeberry, a North American shrub now widely cultivated, particularly in Eastern Europe. Sorbus megalocarpa is a synonym and ‘megalocorpa’ seems simply to be a misspelling.
Black chokeberries are reputed to be effective against a wide range of afflictions including diabetes, hypertention and even radiation damage. The fruit lacks sugar but contains sorbitol and is therefore suitable for diabetics.
Whitebeam beer. Loudon in Arboretum et fruticetum Brittanicum says of the whitebeam (Sorbus aria) “Fermented, the fruit affords a beer.” This was probably made in the same way as Welsh rowan beer, diod griafol, but so far I have found no further references to it.
Whitebeam Berry Gin. Although this is described as as a traditional English drink, I have only ever come across it from one source. It is made by pouring gin over ripe, dried whitebeam berries and allowing them to macerate for at least two months. This, presumably, is the whitebeam equivalent of the rowanberry gin described above and, supposedly, popular in Germany.

Whitebeam berry wine. A British country wine made from ripe whitebeam berries (Sorbus aria) with water, sugar and lemon juice added.
Whitebeam liqueur. The Swiss herbalist Pastor Johann Künzle wrote that a fine, tonic liqueur could be made with whitebeam fruit (Mehlbeeren). The berries are crushed, then mixed with distilled alcohol (Feinsprit), preferably in a large jar. Some balm leaves (Mellissenblatter) are added to give it a distinctive flavour. The jar is tightly closed and placed for about 8 days in the sun, after which the liquid is carefully filtered, diluted and sweetened to taste. Pastor Künzle recommended a glass of this liqueur before each meal and at bedtime (which sounds like a good route to alcoholism).
Whitebeam spirit. Loudon in Arboretum et fruticetum Brittanicum says a powerful spirit was distilled from the fruit and this is repeated by several other authors. I have not been able to find any spirit of this kind commercially available, except the reference to the eau de vie d’alisier blanc (q.v.).
Anderberg, A. & Anderberg, A-L. (2010) Den virtuella floren. Naturhistoriska riksmuseet, Stockholm.
Bingley, William (1804) North Wales including its scenery, antiquities, customs etc. Vol I. T. H. Longman and O. Rees, London.
Bucknall, T. S. D. (1802) Nature of the Varieties of Engrafted Fruit-Trees. Transactions of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Volume XX: 144-167.
Calvel, Étienne (1831) Traité complet sur le pépinières. Librairie Universelle, Paris.
Cotgrave, Randle (1611) A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. Adam Islip, London
Estienne, Charles (1586) L’agriculture et maison rustique. Paris.
Houbrechts, D. (1996) Daniëlles Bomenboek. Lannoo, Tielt, Belgium.
Loudon, J. C. (1838) Arboretum et Fruticetum Brittanicum. Published by the author, London,M1
Pennant, Thomas, [1883?] [Tours in Wales. Welsh] Hynafiaethau Cymreig : Teithiau yn Nghymru, sef cyfieithiad o'r "Tours in Wales.
Roeder, Charles (1903) Notes on food and drink in Lancashire and other northern counties. Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, Vol. XX, 1902
Treutter, Dieter (2010) Managing Phenol Contents in Crop Plants by Phytochemical Farming and Breeding—Visions and Constraints. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2010, 11, 807-857; doi:10.3390/ijms11030807

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Chequers ale lives again

It was announced recently that Bob Mitchell, landlord of The Chequers pub in Little Gransden, Huntingdonshire has made a batch of 'Chequers Ale' using spelt wheat, honey and wild service berries (Sorbus torminalis)  also known as 'chequers'.

He claims that this is the first such ale made for some 200 years and the recipe is essentially his own.  It is to be bottled and will be made available to the public this spring.

Wild service, or chequer trees, are undoubtedly associated with pubs (often called The Chequers) and alcoholic beverages in England, but this seems largely the case in Kent, Sussex and Surrey.  Elsewhere there are usually other reasons for pubs to be known by this name, though it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the pub in Little Gransden had something to do with the wild service in the past.

While fruit from various Sorbus species can enhance the flavour and quality of beers and related drinks and have sometimes been used in this way, there are many other alcoholic possibilities, from eaux-de-vie to bitters.  Juice from true services has been used for centuries in Germany to modify the taste of their local cider and one must therefore consider whether something similar was being done with wild service fruit in South East England.  Much more cider was once made in Kent and Sussex than is currently the case, and the makers would, by definition, have used presses to get the apple juice.  Wild service berries could also be pressed and the juice fermented and this might have been drunk alone or, as in Germany with the true service, added to cider.

Anyway, more power to Bob Mitchell's elbow: I hope I can somehow get to enjoy a bottle of his chequers ale.  I made something similar myself once, though I am no brewer - it was horrible.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Coppiced rowan

Rowan coppices very well. According to Loudon in his Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum "In Britain, the tree forms excellent coppice wood, the shoots being well adapted for poles and for making excellent hoops; and the bark being in demand by tanners." The wood was also second only to yew for bow making.

In the ancient woodland at the bottom of our garden there is a fine example of a coppiced rowan. It stands on the edge of a transmission line ride where it gets a high level of insolation. The slender poles with their smooth, slightly shining, dove grey bark makes a telling landscape feature.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Diod griafol, pihlaka vein & rowan vodka

Rowan wine

Rowan berries have been used to make various drinks as demonstrated in yesterday's post.

A traditional drink in Wales was called diod griafol, literally 'rowan drink' and it was made, so I have read, by steeping rowan berries in water and allowing them to ferment.  I have tried this several times and have yet to produce anything drinkable, though John Evelyn, the famous diarist and arborist, said it was "an incomparable drink".  (Apparently Evelyn was overly fond of describing things as 'incomparable' so one should not, perhaps put to much store by that.

In the Collections historical & archaeological relating to Montgomeryshire, and its borders (1870) it quotes from a North Wales source in the entry for Criavol "Mountain-ash berries and burnt sugar have been added in brewing ale, to imitate porter. Diod-griavol is still used by the country people as a medicinal beverage."

(One Welsh word for mountain ash/rowan is criafol.  The f is sounded like an English v and, in diod griafol the initial c is mutated to g.  In English mutation of letters only seems to occur in dialect, e.g. I gorra go instead of I've got to go.  But I digress).

In Estonia their pihlaka vein, rowan wine, is made in the same way as cider, by crushing and pressing rowan berries and fermenting the juice.  There is a film illustrating this here.  However, to get it to 17 percent proof, I wonder if they fortify it, perhaps with vodka.

It seems that this drink is a particular speciality in Estonia (one woman said she liked its rather bitter taste) and this is illustrated by the picture at the top of this post and the one below, both from Estonian sources.Rowan wine painting

Despite some research, I have failed to find an equivalent in the neighbouring Baltic countries, though rowan vodka, made by soaking the fruit in the spirit, is quite well-known in places like Poland.

Rosie Macdonald in The Field gave this information on rowan vodka:

"Rowan berries are very astringent. Before ripening they contain tartaric acid; after ripening they have citric and malic acids, the sugar sorbin and the saccharine principle sorbitol.  Ideally the berries are picked when fully ripe and after the first frost, but quite often if you wait until then the birds get there first. Therefore pick the berries when fully ripe but before the first frost. Rinse them carefully, remove the stems and put them in the freezer for a couple of weeks. The frost makes the berries milder and sweeter.  Put 800ml berries in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Cover the berries with vodka and allow to steep for one to four weeks in the dark at room temperature. Shake lightly and taste it occasionally. Strain and filter your infusion into a glass bottle. Store for a minimum of two months in a dark place at room temperature. Continue to store the vodka in this way, even during use, as heat and direct sunlight can cause unwanted change to its colour and aroma."

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Estonian rowan wine

I have come across an Estonian label for rowan wine from the 1970s.

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The leaf and fruit are clearly rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, and 'Pihlaka-vein' translates as 'rowan wine', while the Russian at the bottom of the label means, I think, the same thing.  'Valga veini-tehas' is the Valga winery (Valga is a town in south eastern Estonia).  The 17 per cent must be the proof level and is roughly the same as many fortified wines like sherry.  The 0,5 L (bottom right) denotes that the label was on a half litre bottle.

I wonder if this is the same, or similar, to the 'beer', diod griafol, of the Welsh brewed from rowan berries (more of this on some future occasion).

The label is, or was, being offered for sale.  For details, follow this link.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Sorbus orientalis?

Sorbus orientalis Schö a taxon that somewhat baffles me.  Judging by a pressed example from the Herbarium Berolinese at the Botanic Garden and Museum of the University of Berlin, the tree is very much like the wild service (Sorbus torminalis) with rather broadly lobed leaves (see this link.)  I am sure it is the same as Sorbus torminalis var. orientalis (Schönb.-Tem.) Gabrieljan as described in 'The genus Sorbus L. in Turkey' by E. T. Gabrieljan (1961).

This Berlin example comes from the mountains of northern Iran to the south of the Caspian Sea, but a similar from has been described by De Langhe et al. (1973) from Lorraine: On observe très rarement en Lorraine des individus dont les feuilles ont des lobes courts et arrondis au sommet. (Very rarely one sees in Lorraine individuals in which the leaves have short lobes rounded at the end.)

I once found a tree with leaves like the Iranian and French forms near Mayshaves in Kent, UK.  Not only were the leaves of a distinctive shape, they were of a thinner texture than normal S. torminalis leaves and dried to a paler shade of brown (see below).

Wild service from Mayshaves

I was also given, by Mary Briggs, a herbarium sheet example of a wild service in Harrow Road near Kensal Green, London, collected in 1904 which seems to have similarly shaped leaves (see below).

Wild service from Harrow Road 1904

There are  37 forms and varieties of Sorbus torminalis listed on the Provisional Global Plant Checklist of the  International Organization for Plant Information and these include S. torminalis forma orientalis and S. torminalis var. orientalis.


De Langhe et al. (1973)  Nouvelle Flore de la Belgique du Grand Duche de Luxembourg, du Nord de la France et des Regions Voisines.  Ist edition.  Patrimoine du Jardin botanique national de Belgique.

Gabrieljan, E. T. (1961). The genus Sorbus L. in Turkey. Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh 23, no. 4: 483-496

From:  Brussels 1973 by :


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Wild services at Kew Gardens

In November 2009, three wild service trees (Sorbus torminalis) were planted at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to mark the institution's 250th anniversary.  The trees were a gift from Henry Girling, who had grown them from seed, on behalf of the Arboricultural Association.

Details of the event and some background to the tree are given in a case study from Parkwood here:

The reason for choosing wild services (which I am sure are already flourishing at Kew and their Sussex outstation Wakehurst Place) seems to be that they are one of the less well-known native trees and they are described as having "long, but often forgotten, links to Britain's past."  There are many far rarer trees native to Britain, but it is good to see the wild service getting a high profile as it has often done in the past 40 years or so.

Parkwood explain the tree's links with Chequers pubs and the uses of the fruit in drinks and for desert and they say that "in the past, many wild service trees were coppiced ... to produce a fresh crop pf poles used to make everything from tools to houses to charcoal."  I have come across coppiced wild services from time to time, but I think there was no intent with this to produce wood with particular qualities - they could simply have been cut along with everything else in the wood that could be coppiced.  Special uses of wild service wood like making the striking portion of flails, crossbow and gun stocks, combs, musical instruments, harpsichord jacks and suchlike would normally have been taken from timber from mature trees.

Some of the other notions, such as Parkwood's explanation of the species' poor reproductive abilities are, in my view, rather wide of the mark, but the account of the tree is better than many I have seen and the three planted at Kew will certainly help to keep the species in the public eye during their lifetime.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Lightfoot on Sorbus

John Lightfoot was an 18th century English naturalist who wrote the two volume Flora Scotica published in 1777.

He travelled widely and in 1772 spent five months on  a tour of Scotland with Thomas Pennant, another well-known 18th century naturalist.  Lightfoot's flora contains some interesting material on the medicinal uses and folklore associated with the plants he describes and many of these seem to be from first hand experience and sometimes appear to have found their way into later literature, often without the caution that Lightfoot expressed on the reputed properties of some of these plants.

Of the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) he says the Scots name is Roan-tree and the Scottish Gaelic Craobh-chaorain.  On its uses he writes "in the island of Jura they use the juice as an acid for punch".  This is curiously like the lines in Virgil's Georgics where he says of the Scythians "Et pocula laeti/Fermento atque acidis imitantur vitea sorbis ( And for an intoxicating drink/they mimic wine with a brew from acid service berries).  He adds that Highlanders often eat rowan berries "when thoroughly ripe and in some places distil a very good spirit from them."

On the folklore of S. aucuparia he writes that in North-Britain "the superstitious still continue to retain a great veneration of the wood which was undoubtedly handed down to them from early antiquity.  They believe that any small part of this tree carried about them will prove a sovreign charm against all the effects of enchantment or witchcraft.  Their cattle also, as well as themselves, are supposed to be preserved by it from evil; for the dairy-maid will not forget to drive them to the shealings or summer pastures with a rod of Roan-tree, which she carefully lays up over the door of the sheal boothy or summer house and drives them home again with the same.  In Strathspey they make, for the same purpose, on the first day of May, a hoop of the wood of this tree, and in the evening and morning cause all the sheep and lambs to pass through it."

Lightfoot does not seem to know the whitebeams very well, which is rather surprising for a well-travelled botanist, but he does say, in Flora Scotica and presumably of Scotland "the berries when ripe are red, and capable, by fermentation and distillation, of affording a good spirit."

Friday, 15 January 2010

The true service tree in Haringey, London

There is apparently an expanding colony of true service trees (Sorbus domestica) in the London borough of Haringey. David Bevan writing on the Tree Trust for Haringey’s website ( says “The most interesting tree in St Ann's Hospital grounds is the true service tree ... There are several mature trees - all growing close to the perimeter road. They flower in early May - and bear copious "sorbs" in October (like small red and green "apples"). They have given rise to several "self-sown" seedlings in the adjacent hedges, and the two at Railway Fields originated from here. I also remember a fine "medlar-thorn", X Crataemespilus grandiflora, which I have not seen elsewhere."

St. Ann’s Hospital is at OS grid reference TQ32398860 and the Railway Land LNR at TQ31698813.

The London Wildweb says that in a narrow strip of woodland on the southern edge of St. Ann’s Hospital grounds, alongside the embankment of the railway “There is a single wild service-tree (Sorbus torminalis), while true service-tree (Sorbus domestica) is becoming naturalised through seedlings from several planted trees”

Of particular interest is the fact that the true service trees appear to fruit well and to have been regenerating from seed, whereas the wild service (quite characteristically) has not. Clearly the true service likes the north London conditions and I think they are not common from seed in many other places.

I have, myself, grown the true service from seed taken from a fruit brought from Rome by a secretary of mine who went on holiday there. This single fruit contained three seeds and all germinated after stratification out of doors. One still flourishes in our garden in Sedlescombe and fruits intermittently, another went to the local RSPCA nature reserve in Guestling where, as far as I know, it is still growing, and the third to my secretary’s garden in Putney. I grew a further plant from seed from our garden tree and this went to the grounds of the New Vic Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent.

The medlar-hawthorn (X Crataemespilus grandiflora) is thought to be a bigeneric hybrid between the medlar (Mespilus germanica) and Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) and is occasionally found in gardens.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

André Theuriet and the wild service tree

André Theuriet was a 19th century French novelist and poet well known in France for his fine descriptions of field and forest, of small villages and the lives of their people. Unusually for an author, he seemed particularly fond of the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), alisier in French, and I have translated some of his references below.

In his book Sous Bois, impressions d’un forestier (1880) he writes in the essay Autumn in the woods:

“The earthy smell, especially of the woods, the discovery of a bunch of wild services still hanging from the branch.” And later in the same essay: “They came there, answered Tristan, bathed themselves and drank deeply after their lunch of wild services, sloes and other astringent berries had dried their throats too much.”

And “The berries of dogwood like scarlet olives ripened beside the crimson barberries, and high in the wild service trees hung brown bunches of fruit similar in taste and colour to tiny medlars.”

In a poem Automne he wrote:

In the great forest of purple and yellow umber,

The song of the birds was slain in September.

But an airy music still reverberates.

On the ground one hears, like light hail pattering,

Ripe acorns, wild services and beechnuts falling.

And in his book Surprises d’amour there is the following: “He preferred, to the fruits of the Tree of Science, the crab apples and wild services with which, in the autumn, he would fill his pockets while wandering through the woods.”

Finally in Theuriet's novel Bigarreau there is a longer passage involving a wild service tree:

"The work of the day was interrupted with half an hour’s rest and the warder relaxed his sharp-eyed surveillance a little. He, Seurrot, had a susceptible heart, and the bright eyes of the landlady of the Lion d’Or drew him irresistibly towards the inn’s orchard at the end of the yard. Bigarreau, prisoner number twenty-four, had hoped for this. When the warder had followed the track into the orchard, he wormed away like a grass snake into the junipers on the slope, reached the copse and picking out a slender wild service with a leafy crown among the trees on the edge, he climbed up it in short order like a squirrel.

Perched astride a fork in the uppermost branches and hidden by the thick foliage, he took out his cigarettes, lit one and slowly savoured this forbidden delight. It was good up there in the greenery and the fresh air! Between the branches he could see the roofs of the village, the reflections from the river Aube across the meadows and, on both sides of the valley, the wind-brushed fields of rye and oats variegated with pink sainfoin and crimson clover. Blackbirds were singing in the bushes, reed warblers chattering in the willows by the river and a fresh wind rocked him as though he were in a hammock. It was so good there that Bigarreau was lulled into a false sense of security.

When Seurrot returned, chewing a rose between his teeth, and cast his eye over his little troop he immediately noticed that one of the prisoners was missing. “Where is number twenty-four?” he cried, but the others only exchanged sly glances and shrugged their shoulders.

The warder thought at first that there had been an escape and turned pale. His eyes scanned the bushes anxiously, then suddenly at the top of a young standard tree he spotted some wisps of bluish smoke. This was hardly a natural phenomenon and the offender must be hiding up there. Seurrot jumped on to the slope and in the twinkling of an eye was at the foot of the wild service tree where he had no difficulty in picking out Bigarreau’s dangling legs.

“You scoundrel” Seurrot shouted “you think you’re above everybody else and you are smoking again – it’s against the rules. Are you going to come down, you brat?”

Bigarreau had been discovered, but he had the advantage of his position and tried to make good use of it.

“I’d be happy to” he replied “if you promise not to punish me.”

“It seems as though you’re making conditions” replied Seurrot angrily “come down sharp or you’ll regret it.”

“I’m staying put” replied Bigarreau stubbornly.

The wild service tree was very slender and had a very tall trunk; the warder had no talent as a climber and, although he had shaken the tree violently, the delinquent did not budge.

“So you defy my authority, you scoundrel.” “Just wait a minute – you others, go and get me an axe, and make it quick.”

The other two prisoners obeyed his bellowed order. Seurrot furiously grabbed the axe that was presented to him and, without the slightest hesitation about breaking forest law, attacked the wild service tree at the base of the trunk. After the first few blows the tree shook from base to tip, but Bigarreau remained unmoved. The blows of the axe continued, bark and wood flew in splinters, sweat beaded the warder’s forehead. All this greatly amused the two young prisoners who followed with interest the deepening V at the base of the trunk. There was a loud crack and this time Bigarreau reflected that of the two evils it was wise to avoid the worst and he let himself fall through the branches in a bundle on to the ground which, happily, was covered in a soft layer of moss.

“You rat! I’ll teach you to defy me!” shouted Seurrot grabbing his arm. (He had been a policeman and his fingers were like pinchers). At the same time he rained blows on Bigarreau’s back and pushed him towards the yard.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Swedish whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia)

20090520 Pagham Sorbus intermedia

The Swedish whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia), with its grey green leaves, creamy white flowers and red berries, is widespread in the British Isles though not a native tree. It is frequent in parks and gardens, and is a tough and popular street tree, though in the latter case often confused with the similar Sorbus mougeotii, the Vosges or Mougeot’s whitebeam. It also resembles the English whitebeam (Sorbus anglica). The Swedish whitebeam is also naturalised quite widely into urban and countryside habitats in Britain and mainland Europe outside its native range usually, no doubt, being bird sown.

Sorbus intermedia occurs as a native in southern Sweden (where it is known as the oxel) and various other countries mainly around the Baltic sea. It is a triploid apomictic species which breeds true from seed that have not been pollinated and is thought to have a parentage derived from the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), the wild service (S. torminalis) and a member of the whitebeam aggregate (S. aria agg.). S. aucuparia and S. torminalis occur on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic as does Sorbus rupicola, a member of the aria group, and S. intermedia itself, though I think this only shows that conditions may occur in the wild where all the species thought to be involved in the genome of S. intermedia can be present together.

It has also been suggested that S. intermedia possibly arose as a cross between the Finnish whitebeam (Sorbus hybrida) and S. aucuparia.

In the north of England, particularly in North Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland and southern Scotland, the Swedish Whitebeam is commonly called ‘the service tree’ and this has led to a number of incorrect records of the wild service (S. torminalis), both from the area concerned and from other places which people who come from the north have visited or moved to (Roper, 1993). While it is not regarded as a native in Britain, this may indicate an early introduction of the Swedish whitebeam into northern England and southern Scotland through links between the north east coast and Scandinavia.

In his Flora Oeconomica Linnaeus wrote that bears were very fond of Swedish whitebeam berries and that bread could be made from the fruit after drying, a spirit distilled and a drink brewed from them (Anderberg & Anderberg, 2010) . This is a set of attributes often ascribed to other Sorbus species. The use in brewing would appear to be equivalent to the diod griafol fermented drink made from rowan berries in Wales. The fruit of the Swedish whitebeam appears to be little used today, but the wood in stabilised form is available for small turnery items, knife handles and similar.

There are many pictures of the Swedish whitebeam and its relatives on-line and a particularly telling sequence of photographs is that of an old, free-standing tree near Välsta in southern Sweden by Stefan Jansson:

It is a large, wide-spreading example similar in shape to old, open-grown wild services and, somehow, it looks like a native plant compared with those in the British Isles.


Anderberg, A. & Anderberg, A-L. (2010) Den virtuella floren. Naturhistoriska riksmuseet, Stockholm.

Roper, P. (1993) The distribution of the Wild Service Tree, Sorbus torminalis (L.) Crantz, in the British Isles. Watsonia 19:209-229.

Sell, P. D. (1989) The Sorbus latifolia (Lam.) Pers. aggregate in the British Isles. Watsonia 17: 385-399

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Gough's rock whitebeam (Sorbus rupicoloides)

Gough's rock whitebeam (Sorbus rupicoloides Houston & Rich) a small tree growing to 7 metres of more, was first found and collected by Libby Houston in 2006 in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, UK.  It has been established by DNA analysis that it is different from the very varied Sorbus aria and other whitebeams that grow in the Gorge.  It is an apomictic microspecies.

Both the leaves and the red fruit are of characteristic colour and shape, but nevertheless resemble other whitebeam species, several of which grow in the Gorge.  Nearest in leaf shape is the rock whitebeam (Sorbus rupicola), hence the specific name of the new species  (Houston et al, 2009).

The tree, so far known from only 12 examples, grows on carboniferous limestone around Gough's Cave on the south side of the gorge near the west end.  With such a small population it qualifies for 'Critically Endangered' status as recommended by the IUCN and it is currently suffering from grazing by the goats that have been introduced to help with the conservation of some of the smaller plants that grow in the gorge.

Now it has been recognised as a microspecies in its own right, Gough's rock whitebeam is likely to get much closer attention so that its long-term future can be secured.


Houston, L., Robertson, A., Jones, K., Rich, T. C. G., Smith, S. C. C., & Hiscock, S. J. (2009) An account of the Whitebeams (Sorbus L., Rosaceae) of Cheddar Gorge, England, with description of three new species.  Watsonia 27: 283-300.