Nature 2023 June

Checkers and Chokers

On the evening of 9th May a gathering of the local community congregated on Cholesbury Common to witness the latest in the time-honoured tradition of commemorative tree planting. This time five trees were planted to commemorate the Coronation of King Charles III.

To say we are a nation of tree lovers is an overstatement, particularly evidenced by the UK having the lowest density of trees in Europe these days. The Chilterns and more specifically our part of them is thankfully an exception to this. There has been a long history of royalty-commissioned tree planting dating back to the 12th century when laws were put in place to protect forests and woodlands for hunting purposes.

The tradition of tree planting to commemorate important royal events such as coronations and jubilees has also had a bit of a history. During the 19th and 20th centuries national and commonwealthwide tree-planting initiatives were launched to celebrate the Coronations of Queen Victoria in 1838, Kings Edward VII in 1902, George V in 1911, George VI in 1937, and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Additionally, other tree-plantings took place to commemorate Royal Jubilees and in more recent times both the late Queen, her father and Charles have all promoted national and local initiatives to regenerate or establish new woods and forests.

According to the Local Heritage Study of Hawridge and Cholesbury Commons, an oak tree was planted in an unknown location on the Commons in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The massive horse chestnut by the cricket ground was planted in 1937 for King George VI’s coronation.

Returning to the most recent commemorative event, of particular interest to me was the choice of one of the two species of trees planted, the wild service tree.

Historically, wild service trees preferred a subsoil of clay and limestone. They would have been more frequently found in southern lowlands, such as the New Forest, the clay or greensand areas of The Weald (Kent and Sussex and Surrey) and Epping Forest in Essex. Much more recently plantings took place in London Parks, such as Hampstead Heath or Wimbledon Common. They have also been found at lowland elevations in Buckinghamshire like Burnham Beeches. In The Chilterns, they are largely restricted to the lower areas close to the Thames. They are only found in the few clay-topped outcrops in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire Chiltern Hills. Outside the south-east they were largely limited to ancient woodland and hedgerows. The most northerly region the tree is found in is below 300m in the Lake District. Its survival has much to do with its presence as an economically important tree for timber.

It is favoured by few birds, such as wood pigeons that seek the berries out as they have the robust gizzards and guts to break down the tough fibrous fruit. Occasionally, in a poor year for fruit, it may be eaten by birds such as mistle thrushes. However, propagation by birds is described as ‘unpredictable’. Instead, it is most frequently spread via underground suckers. Mind you, the turning out of pigs in autumn and occurrence of wild boars in ancient woodlands may have accounted for its more successful distribution by fruit dispersal in these locations. Consequently, over hundreds of years, in ancient woodlands, the tree might form dense plantations.

Despite its longevity in the English landscape the wild service tree is today a largely unknown native tree. However, it has a long history and close association with people in this country stretching back to at least Neolithic times, some 6,000 years ago, when it is known to have been a not infrequent part of the diet until other imported edible fruit bearing trees became established in this country.

It is a medium-sized deciduous tree with maple-like, but with more deeply lobed leaves. Bright green in spring, the leaves turn russet red in autumn. Bark of mature trees has deep rectangular or criss-crossing markings. Its flowers are white and showy. Appearing in May they could, from a distance, be mistaken for blackthorn or hawthorn. By the end of October, with the leaves becoming edged in red ochre, the fruits turn from dark green through to red to tawny brown.

The name ‘Service’, according to the naturalist Richard Mabey, has erroneously been connected to the Latin word for beer, ‘cervisia’ as in Roman times and, until replaced by hops, was used to flavour beer. Though this theory has some weight, Mabey prefers the theory that ‘Service’ is much more likely derived from Old English ‘syfre’ which meant ‘clean, pure, chaste, sober, not giving way to appetite or passion, abstinent, temperate or circumspect’. I was not clear at first how a tree can present like this. However, having dug deeper there seems to be a longstanding reason for this. Herbalists over the past 500 years have been recommending medicinal uses for the fruit.

The fruits are also responsible for conferring the wild service tree’s species name, ‘torminalis’, meaning ‘countering gripes’ suggesting the fruit had a historic use in the treatment for colic. An herbal dictionary definition of the eighteenth-century claims that ‘sorb apples’ are “good to purge watery humours and against the scurvy”.

The southern counties of Britain are the traditional part of Britain where fruits were eaten. They were once sold at markets. Berries at first are bitter but once branches are picked and fruit threaded on strings, hung up in the larder to ripen or more correctly blet i.e., allowed to partially rot like medlars or quince, they become soft and turn very sweet like gritty sultanas, apricots, or very ripe damsons.

As a culinary addition to the diet from past times to the present day, the berries have been used in preserves, jellies, syrups, compotes, vinegars, and country wines and as a fruit cake replacement for raisins. During the 16th to 19th centuries the berries from the wild service tree were used to flavour spirit-based liquors, much like sloe gin or cherry brandy. In the 21st century so-called artisan recipes have been developed using the berries infused with whisky. Another modern recipe I came across suggested steeping the berries in vodka! I bet that would pack a punch.

Another name for the wild service tree is ‘chequers’ or ‘chokers’, possibly derived from an old English name for draughts. There is a much-disputed theory put forward by historian David Starkey in his book Elizabeth: Apprenticeship, that suggests the name of the nearby UK Prime Minister’s residence might have its origin in the numbers of chequers trees growing in the grounds.

A much more plausible explanation dates to the Middle-Ages when a checkerboard sign was often hung outside to denote a public house. Once there were over 270 pubs called Chequers. There is still a large concentration of ‘The Chequers’ pubs in The Weald, Sussex and Kent with the frequent occurrence of wild service trees in the pub gardens not considered a co-incidence.

Aside from an early visit to see the newly planted trees with their bright green deeply lobed leaves unfolding, later this year you can enjoy the ochre tints as they appear in the autumn. After only a few years it will be delightful to see the white flowers in the spring and green fruits that turn brown in the early autumn. Finally, for youngsters, especially those who were involved in planting the trees, the development in many, many years’ time, of the deeply gouged criss-cross reddish-tinged bark will bring back memories of either their part in planting or visiting a chequers, chokers or wild service tree on Cholesbury Common.

Chris Brown BEM
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