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.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Sorbus extracts in German skin care products

A German company, Babor, uses extracts of rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, and, more particularly, of wild service, S. torminalis, in its Body Line Thermal skin care lotion and other products.

Babor, based in Aachen, is an internationally known organisation and claims that the ingredients in its products have been scientifically researched and tested. They say that “thermal water from Aachen, zeolite and elsberry extract supply intensive moisture” in their lotion and “lend elasticity and suppleness to the skin.” Apparently it is the tannins from the wild service fruit, with the many other ingredients in the lotion, that help to provide these benefits. This does not appear to be derived from any of the traditional uses of wild service fruit that I have so far come across.  Zeolites are highly absorbent aluminium silicates.

A plantation of wild service trees has been established in the Forest of Blumencron near Mechernich-Rissdorf in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany to provide fruit for Babor (Sprothen, 2010), fruit which in their English language adverts they call the ‘elsberry’, a term used almost exclusively by the company.

It is interesting that in his German text Sprothen (2010) uses the spelling ‘Elsbeer’ for the wild service as did Martin Luther in the early 16th century (see entry below on 27 December 2009).

At around $40 a tube there may not be too many who can afford to anoint themselves with extract of wild service berries.


Sprothen, J. (2010) Elsbeer-Plantage als Zukunftsinvestition.  Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, Monday, 4 January 2010.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Cheddar Gorge Whitebeams

Cheddar Gorge is a Carboniferous limestone cleft in the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England and it is notable for many rare plants. The gorge is of great importance for Sorbus taxa of the aria section (whitebeams) but has not been thoroughly surveyed for these trees until recently.

In the past the gorge was heavily grazed with trees and shrubs only surviving on the steeper cliffs. After World War II grazing declined and the grasslands were invaded by scrub, which included tree seedlings, and much of the area is well on its way to secondary woodland. Many whitebeams occurred in this spread of woody plants.

The common whitebeam (Sorbus aria) is abundant over much of the gorge and as a cross-pollinating sexually reproducing species is very variable in its leaf shape and other characteristics. However, it has been known for some time that there were other, apomictic microspecies (i.e. self-fertile without pollen) present. Of these the English whitebeam (Sorbus anglica), the grey-leaved whitebeam (S. porrigentiformis) and the round-leaved whitebeam (S. eminens) were known in the gorge before Libby Houston was commissioned to do Sorbus survey in 2005 and 2006.

As a result of this survey, and with the assistance of Tim Rich from National Museum of Wales and others, three new species were described in 2009, though botanists had long suspected that there were further whitebeam microspecies at Cheddar. The three, all small trees growing 7 metres or more tall, are the Cheddar whitebeam (Sorbus cheddarensis), the twin-cliffs whitebeam (Sorbus eminentoides) and Gough's rock whitebeam (Sorbus rupicoloides). The last of these is named after Gough's Cave in the gorge. (Richard Gough was a 19th C resident of Cheddar who made explorations into the cave which extends a considerable distance into the hillside.) Most of the Gough's rock whitebeams so far discovered grow near the mouth of this cave.

All the new species qualify for 'Critically Endangered' status according to IUCN guidelines. So far only 19 examples of S. cheddarensis have been found, only 15 of S. eminentoides and only 12 of S. rupicoloides though more may occur on the inaccessible parts of the gorge or areas that have not been surveyed.

Goats, among the grazing stock present in the gorge, create the greatest threat to these trees and many of the whitebeams have been damaged or killed by them. In the case of the Cheddar whitebeam, for example, out of 13 trees examined for goat damage, 6 (46%) had been affected. The Cheddar Gorge stock were introduced for conservation purposes and it is ironic that they should threaten critically endangered tree species, though I am sure this was not the original intent. Indeed, there could have been Sorbus microspecies present that are now globally extinct as a result of conservation grazing.

Cheddar Gorge is a popular destination for the general public and the whitebeams are an important landscape feature. The rarer whitebeams, however, grow mainly in places where access is difficult and where there is a danger of falling rock and people are strongly advised not to go into dangerous situations without prior permission and the appropriate safety arrangements.


Houston, L. (2006) Cheddar Gorge Sorbus survey 2005. Unpublished report to the National Trust, March 2006.

Houston, L. (2009) Cheddar Gorge Sorbus survey 2006. Unpublished report to the Longleat Estate, 2009.

Houston, L., Robertson, A., Jones, K., 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.