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Quick facts

Common name: wild service tree

Scientific name: Sorbus torminalis

Family: Rosaceae

Origin: native

This deciduous broadleaf tree can reach 25m when mature. The bark is brown and patterned with cracked, square plates, and the twigs are slender, shiny, grey-brown and straight.

Look out for: the leaves which have 3–4 unequal lobes.

Identified in winter by: the green buds, which are not hairy.

What does wild service tree look like?

Wild service tree leaves

Credit: Colin Varndell / naturepl.com

Leaves

Leaf buds are rounded and green, like little peas, and form on short leaf stalks. The lobed leaves are similar to maple, and turn a rich, coppery red before falling in autumn.

Young wild service tree with flowers and leaves

Credit: Bob Gibbons / Alamy Stock Photo

Flowers

The wild service tree is hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within each flower. They form in clusters in late spring to early summer, and are pollinated by insects.

Wild service tree berries

Credit: WILDLIFE Gmbh / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

Once pollinated, the flowers develop into green-brown oval fruits (sometimes called chequers), 10–15 mm diameter and patterned with small, pale spots when mature in mid to late autumn. It can also propagate itself by suckers.

Not to be confused with:

Maple (Acer campestre) as they have similarly shaped leaves, but those of the wild service tree are not as distinctly lobed.

Did you know?

The fruit require 'bletting' (ie. decomposition) through freezing to make them edible.

Where to find wild service tree

Although rare, it is often found in oak and ash woods and pockets of ancient woodland. It grows best in clay and lime-based soils. The wild service tree is native to the UK and parts of Europe, Africa and Asia.

Wild service tree close-up of leaves and flower buds

Trees woods and wildlife

A sign of ancient woodland

The wild service tree is an ancient-woodland indicator. If you spot it while you're out exploring, it could be a sign you're standing in a rare and special habitat.

Learn more about ancient woodland

Value to wildlife

The flowers provide pollen and nectar for insects, while the berries are eaten by birds. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the moths Bucculatrix bechsteinella and Phyllonorycter mespilella.

Did you know?

Chequers were still on sale around 100 years ago.

Mythology and symbolism

The fruits, also known as chequers, are said to taste like dates and were given to children as sweets. They can be made into an alcoholic drink and it is thought they influenced the naming of 'Chequers Inns', although it is unclear which came first – the name of the fruit or the inns.

Uses of wild service tree

The wood has a fine grain and silvery sheen, although it has never been widely used. The fruits can also be used to flavour other alcoholic drinks, such as whisky.

Threats and conservation

Trees may be affected by silver leaf disease and fireblight.