Wild Service trees (Sorbus torminalis).
Wild Service trees grow very locally. They are largely confined to ancient woods and hedgerows on clays in eastern and southern England and to limestone in the west. They are found as far north as the southern Lake District. In Hertfordshire they are mostly confined to the central and eastern areas.
An alternative name for the Wild Service is the Chequer tree, perhaps because of their speckled fruits or alternatively because the bark of mature trees breaks up into squares similar to that of pear trees.
The fruits grow in bunches like haws. In September they are hard and olive green but they gradually soften ("blet") and by October or November they are soft, brown and sticky. In the 1850s bunches of them used to be sold in markets. At one time an alcoholic drink was made from the fruits and this may have given the names of "The Chequers" to many pubs some of which have a wild service tree in their grounds. The trees are extremely variable in many characteristics, e.g. the leaf shape and size, the time of flushing, seed production and suckering. Some give rise to numerous suckers like plum trees, others do not sucker at all.
There are 12 mature wild service trees in Great Groves, five of which produce abundant fertile seed. It is often stated that seed germination is very poor but in our case this is not so. We have grown hundreds of saplings in our small tree nursery. What is true however is that seedling survival in woodland is extremely poor.
In April 1997 we chose 56 pairs of seedlings from seven parent trees. We marked one of each pair with a cane and protected the other with a "quill" shelter. By July 1997, 27 of the protected seedlings had died presumably through lack of light compared with nine of the unprotected ones. However, by 1998 no seedlings were left. They were probably eaten or shaded out.
Saplings are quite abundant in Great Groves. The majority are close to mature trees and have presumably originated as suckers, but a few more distant ones must have developed from seeds.
Until recently, Wild Service trees were not valued at all for their timber. However, in France they are now grown as a crop for plywood and veneer. It might well be worth including Wild Service in new plantings and this is what we are doing in Grays. An added bonus is the beautiful golden red colour of the leaves in October. This is the easiest time to identify Wild Service trees in woodland.