Service tree or True service tree – Sorbus domestica

Trees & Shrubs – Sorbus domestica service tree, or sometimes true service tree

Sorbus domestica (service tree, or sometimes true service tree to distinguish it from the wild service tree; syn. Cormus domestica (L.) Spach) is a species of Sorbus native to western, central and southern Europe, northwest Africa (Atlas Mountains), and southwest Asia (east to the Caucasus).

 It is a deciduous tree growing to 15–20 m (rarely to 30 m) tall with a trunk up to 1 m diameter, though can also be a shrub 2–3 m tall on exposed sites. The bark is brown, smooth on young trees, becoming fissured and flaky on old trees. The winter buds are green, with a sticky resinous coating. The leaves are 15–25 cm long, pinnate with 13-21 leaflets 3–6 cm long and 1 cm broad, with a bluntly acute apex, and a serrated margin on the outer half or two thirds of the leaflet. The flowers are 13–18 mm diameter, with five white petals and 20 creamy-white stamens; they are produced in corymbs 10–14 cm diameter in late spring, and are hermaphrodite and insect pollinated. The fruit is a pome 2–3 cm long, greenish-brown, often tinged red on the side exposed to sunlight; it can be either apple-shaped (f. pomifera (Hayne) Rehder) or pear-shaped (f. pyrifera (Hayne) Rehder).

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Service tree or True service tree – Sorbus domestica – trunk

In the UK, one very old tree that existed in the Wyre Forest before being destroyed in 1862 used to be considered native, but it is now generally considered to be more likely of cultivated origin, probably from a mediaeval monastery orchard planting. More recently, a small population of genuinely wild specimens was found growing as stunted shrubs on cliffs in south Wales (Glamorgan) and nearby southwest England (Gloucestershire). It is a very rare species in Britain, occurring at only a handful of sites. Its largest English population is within the Horseshoe Bend Site of Special Scientific Interest at Shirehampton, near Bristol.

A further population has been discovered growing wild in Cornwall on a cliff in the upper Camel Estuary.

It is a long-lived tree, with ages of 300–400 years estimated for some in Britain.

The English name comes from Middle English serves, plural of serve, from Old English syrfe, borrowed from the Latin name sorbus; it is unrelated to the verb serve. Other English names include sorb, sorb tree, and whitty pear—”whitty” because the leaves are similar to rowan (i.e. pinnate), and “pear” due to the nature of the fruit.

Edward Step on The True Service

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Service tree or True service tree – Sorbus domestica – spring

The True Service closely resembles the Mountain Ash in habit and foliage, but it is not a native of Britain, though it used to be claimed as such, on account of its growing in the more mountainous parts of Cornwall and in Wyre Forest, Worcestershire. The latter, however, is the only Service tree that could put in such a claim, for it grows—or grew?—far from habitations or cultivated land, and the presumption is that it has not owed its introduction to man. Still, “one swallow does not make a summer,” and a solitary wild tree does not give the species a title to be reckoned as British. It is occasionally cultivated here, and its portrait, with a brief account of its points of difference from the Mountain Ash, may be useful. A comparison of the photographs from the boles of the two species will show a great difference: that of the Mountain Ash being smooth, whilst that of the Service is rugged. The leaf is similarly broken up into paired leaflets, but these are broader, and are downy on both upper and lower sides. The white flowers are as large as May-blossoms, and the fruits, which may be either apple-shaped or pear-shaped, are greenish-brown, with rusty specks, and four times the size of Rowan-berries. In winter, when there are neither leaves, flowers, nor fruits to help in the distinction, the bark may be taken in conjunction with the leaf-buds, which are green and smooth in this species, whilst those of the Mountain Ash are black and downy. The fruit may be eaten after it has begun to decay, as in the case of the Medlar.

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Service tree or True service tree – Sorbus domestica in winter

Loudon describes the wood of the Service as the hardest and heaviest of all the trees indigenous to Europe: fine-grained, red-tinted, susceptible of a high polish, and much in request in France for all purposes where strength and durability are needed. He further says that it takes two centuries to attain its full stature (fifty to sixty feet), “and lives to so great an age that some specimens of it are believed to be upwards of 1000 years old.”

We have already made reference to the meaning of the name Service. Another name—Sorb (from Latin sorbeo)—shows closer affinity for the fermented liquor indicated by Servise, for it means “drink down.” A third name is Chequer-tree, which Dr. Prior tells us is an antique pronunciation of the word choker, in allusion to the unpalatable fruit, fit to choke one. Choke-pear, it will be remembered, is a synonym of the Wild Pear. Britten and Holland regard the name Chequer-tree as having no connection with choking, but an indication of the chequered or spotted appearance of the fruit.