Checker Tree Mountain-Ash

Checker (chequer) Tree Mountain-Ash – Sorbus torminalis

Also commonly called the wild service tree, this plant figures heavily in British history as a symbol for the public house.

The Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain ascribes the following characteristics to this enigmatic tree: “Native to the UK. Tree has a bushy habit, white flowers in summer, brown fruit in autumn. A spreading deciduous tree to 25 m (75 feet) with broad, pinnately lobed leaves that turn reddish-brown in autumn, and cream flowers in early summer followed by small brown fruits. Time to ultimate height: 20-25 years.” They suggest as common names: wild service tree (preferred), checker (or chequer) tree,  griping tree, or sorb. No opinions are offered as to the origin of these names or uses for the fruit.

Checker Tree

Cultivated checker tree, grown from seed at northern Illinois, is 27 years old

The Woodland Trust (‘The UK’s leading woodland conservation charity’) is more ambitious and hyperbolic, with offerings such as, “..famous for its autumn fruits, often made into sweets for children and alcoholic drinks for adults,” and “gorgeous red leaves in autumn.” Common name offerings include wild service tree, chequers tree, maple tree, chokers, and maple cherry. They ascribe the tree the following characteristics: Average height: 10-25 m. (whither average?). Leaflets are described as “looking a little like a maple having around five lobes.” The good people at TWT then recite a mishmash of “admittedly confused” debates over whether the fruits were called chequers and lent their name to the pubs (Chequers Inns) or vice versa, or whether the fruits were made into alcoholic drinks and served therein.

However, they are sure of: The fruits can be used to flavor whisky as well as other alcoholic beverages, the wood is not often used despite its “lovely fine grain and silvery sheen and similarity to sycamore,” and the fruit were much more popular in the past;  “Households in southern England would pick the fruits and string them together over the hearth to ripen” for the children to munch upon. Heady brew indeed.

Cometh then Habitat Aid, “a one-stop resource for creating sustainable landscapes and delivering biodiversity” (!) which tells us the wild service tree, (or chequer tree) is now one of the “rarest native trees, being concentrated in the southern weald in association with ancient woodland and clay soils.” Apparently, the wild service tree’s crop of fruit (“chequers”) – although almost entirely consumed by birds and insects – was “a Neolithic staple” and “inevitably folk made wine out of it, which was served at Chequers Inns – possibly also at the Prime Minister’s Chequers country residence!” [3]. A nice touch, that, tying in the PM. They do offer the species for sale along with provenance certificates.

Wikipedia offers a smorgasbord of interesting tidbits, among them:

Although “chequers” taste similar to dates, they are usually too astringent to eat unless “over-ripe and bletted.”
Chequers “traditionally are known” as a remedy for colic. The Latin species epithet torminalis means “good for colic.”
Before the introduction of hops, the fruit was used to flavor beer, which may or may not be related to the ancient symbol of a pub being a chequer-board although the pub name itself it has been suggested was originally brought by the Romans (citation needed).
Alternatively, “chequers” may have been derived from the pattern of the fruit, though some suggest from the pattern  of the bark on old trees.
This species is “native to Europe from England and Wales east to Denmark and Poland, south to northwest Africa, and southeast to southwest Asia from Asia Minor to the Caucasus and Alborz mountains.”

Plants for a Future Weighs In
The seeds probably contain hydrogen cyanide. This is the ingredient that gives almonds their characteristic flavour. Unless the seed is very bitter it should be perfectly safe in reasonable quantities. In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.” [5]

Oh-oh. Quite alarming. They do agree with Wikipedia contributors about the range, though. And they do offer a comprehensive bank of references behind their very detailed cultural information.
One of their readers helpfully adds:
“In parts of England, in past centuries, the berries were used to flavour certain types of beer and ale. The sign hanging outside a number of old English pubs, “The Chequers”, does not always show a black and white board but sometimes shows a picture of the Wild Service Tree. — See “Trees and Bushes in wood and hedgerow” H.Vedel & J.Lange. (English translation) Methuen.

So there you have it. The wild service tree called chequers not only was itself shown on pertinent signage, but also served a etymologic metaphoric role in the board-game’s representation of the British public house. I find it entirely logical and charming to think the Neolithic peoples of the British Isles would have taken a break from mucking about setting up henges and such to ferment a few of these berries. I’m sorry for the noble tree’s apparent decline in Albion, and hope for its survival there and elsewhere.

And I’m glad The Morton Arboretum (at Lisle, Illinois) keeps (at least) one of these very useful and interesting trees ’round for us Yanks to look at. I hope someday to visit again after a good frost and see what this bletting is all about.

1. The Royal Horticultural Society Plant Selector, Sorbus torminalis
2. The Woodland Trust (UK) Tree Guide, “Wild service tree
3. Habitat Aid, “Wild Service tree
4. Checker Tree Mountain-Ash, Morton Arboretum accession 614-83-1 photos by Bruce Marlin
5. Plants for a Future , “Sorbus torminalis
6. Wikipedia contributors, Sorbus torminalis

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