In celebration of … continuously learning new things.
I’ve been working at Wimpole Hall for about 10 years now and I would say that I am familiar with most of the trees growing there, so it was with some surprise that when handed a fallen leaf by the Head Gardener and asked what it was, I had no idea. Even worse then that when he told me it was from a Chequers tree I still had no idea what that looked like or where it was in the garden. Here are some of its leaves:
Rather like massive hawthorn leaves aren’t they?
OK, so it turns out to be a Sorbus, specifically Sorbus torminalis, otherwise known as the Wild Service tree (which at least I’ve heard of!).
Sorbus torminalis is a fairly rare, shade-tolerant, small tree (~25 m) which is native to lowland England and Wales (also various regions of mainland Europe). It grows best on calcareous clays and thin soils over limestone. Interestingly, it has a long history of use in Britain.
Apparently, Sorbus torminalis is “extremely non‐gregarious” (Peter Thomas, Journal of Ecology, 2017), which strikes me as funny because, way back, its fruits were used to flavour beer, hence the name of many a pub around here … a place epitomising the very essence of conviviality. In fact, to advertise the availability of this beer a landlord would hang out a chequers/chess board. It’s still a much-used sign:
Sadly, I have no pictures of the fruits, but I understand that they should be blet (allowed to over-ripen) before eating them (similar to medlars) and that they have a taste reminiscent of dates. To get a reasonable crop and ripen seed requires a good long, hot summer.
An alternative idea for the Chequers common name is the speckling on the fruit (or even the boxy pattern on mature bark).
I love it when there are stories linking today’s discoveries in our cultural history.