The wild service tree is one of the really special trees we plant here at Sun Rising. Another of its common names is the checkers or chequers tree. Sorbus torminalis, it’s in the same genus as the rowan and the whitebeams, but it is quite a different creature. Although native to England, and particularly the heavy clay of South Warwickshire, many people have never heard of this magnificent species.
Its blossom in spring is not extraordinary: handfuls of little white flowers, often high in the canopy. The trees don’t start flowering until they reach around seven years old, and it takes another year or so of maturing for the tree to set its blossom, growing the equally insignificant berries. To me they look like tiny little apples, in a rich nut-brown. If the summer is hot enough to ripen them fully, apparently they can taste rather like dates – I’ve not yet tried one, but the birds seem to like them late in the year. When the tree really comes into its own is in the autumn when, more extravagantly than any of our native trees, its large palmate leaves can break into a thousand hues of gold, through bronze and maroon, to shameless scarlet.
More importantly, and fascinating as a history of this tree, before hops arrived from the continent, it was these little brown berries that were used to flavour our beer. There’s a debate as to whether the common name of checkers tree was taken from the name of old pubs, or if pubs were named after the checkers trees that were so integral to the beer: I like the latter. The patterning on the silvery bark can look wonderfully checkered as the tree matures.
Centuries ago, it was a common tree in this landscape, but as old woodlands were felled, it was one of the species that wasn’t readily replaced. It has a beautiful fine wood for timber, and can grow to 10m – 25m tall. But the truth is that it just didn’t grow as easily as the Warwickshire weed that was the English elm, nor as readily as ash, maple or oak. Across the continent, in warmer climes, the berries ripen sufficiently each summer to set their seed, but in England the wild service tends to spread through suckers. Once you’ve cleared the old wood, there’s no chance for those suckers to grow. With hops taking over its role in brewing, there weren’t enough reasons to keep replanting.
Its importance in Warwickshire, however, is now becoming clearer. With the large elms lost, and ash die-back killing these beautiful trees too, and with the oak under threat, some tree experts wonder if the wild service tree may be the next significant large tree of our countryside. It does need a little help to get going from seed, and it can look a little straggly in its first decade, getting its roots established in the soil. But we are hoping you agree, this tree is really worth the time and trouble: perhaps one day it will be bringing its glorious autumn colour to fields and hedgerows all over Warwickshire, and who knows, perhaps some small brewer will again try the little nut-brown berries to flavour a local beer …