The Wild Service Tree is a member of the Rosaceae family and can be found throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The tree is deciduous and relatively slow growing, reaching a height of around 25m or so and living to about 150 years old.
The leaf looks a bit like an oak crossed with a maple, an interesting simple lobed leaf that has a pair of lobes at right angles to the rest of the leaf at the base. It is dark green on both sides and younger leaves are covered in a fine coat of hairs. Come Autumn these leaves turn magnificent shades of red which helps to identify them in dense woodlands. In the late Spring the tree produces clusters of white flowers, similar to those of the rowan which attract bees and butterflies. The tree is uncommon and thought of as an indicator of ancient woodland, although it is also found in hedgerows and scrubby coppices in the south of England.
As the leaves are turning in the Autumn, the tree also produces small brown berries. These are very dry, hard and bitter if picked too early, but will soften and ripen by late October, tasting sweet and slightly spicy. Before foreign fruits became readily available in the UK, the fruits of the Wild Service Tree were highly prized for their delicate flavour as they tasted like nothing else that was affordable. Sadly the trees are much rarer now and getting to the fruit before the birds, mammals and insects do can be a challenge. Best to wait until after the first frost which helps to break down the cell structure and makes them sweeter.
Tree of tawny berry rich though wild
When mellowed to a pulp yet little known
Though shepherds by its dainty taste beguiled
Swarm with clasped leg the smooth trunk timber grown
and pulls the very topmost branches down.
Tis beautiful when all the woods tan brown
To see thee thronged with berry's ripe and fine
For daintier palates fitting then the clown
Where hermits of a day may rove and dine
Luxuriantly amid thy crimson leaves....
The berries, known as chequers, were used in the past for the treatment of colic as they have very good stomach calming properties. Many pubs in the UK bear the name Chequers, not because of the game but because of these fruits. Beer was very rough (though not as rough as the water) in the past, and while drinking, people would eat the chequers fruits along with the beer to neutralise the effects of the beverage. 'Chequers' pubs would supply the fruits of the Wild Service Tree to its patrons. The wood, due to its slow grown nature, is quite dense and is used for turning and for joinery.
The Wild Service Tree grows best on limestone and is now looked out for (at least in the UK) by conservationists. Tree Protection Orders can be put on single trees and they are encouraged in native tree planting schemes. The tree does sucker well, sometimes at a great distance from the original tree, which helps it to colonise woodlands. It is one of the less known and common trees, certainly in Britain, and is worth looking out for and protecting.