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): http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alisier_%C3%A9chantillon.JPG


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. http://books.google.com/books?id=eTnP-BK54fkC&lpg=PP1&dq=torminalis%20wood&pg=PT1#v=onepage&q=wood&f=false

Drapier, N. (1993) Connaissance du genre Sorbus. Les Sorbus en France : caractères botaniques et généralités. Revue forestière française XLV - 3-1993 http://documents.irevues.inist.fr/bitstream/handle/2042/26416/RFF_1993_3_207.pdf?sequence=1

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.