The service tree is a native tree species that is rarely found in forests. With us, you can find out everything about the service tree, its properties, and planting in your own garden.
Despite its valuable wood and edible fruits, the service tree is hardly known and is rarely planted. We will introduce you to the local tree species and give you tips on planting, caring for, and using the service tree.
Wild service tree: origin and characteristics
The service tree ( Sorbus torminalis ) is also known as the atlas berry, adlitzberry, wild sparrow hawk tree, Swiss pear tree, or Ruhr pear, as its fruits were previously taken against dysentery.
It is closely related to the mountain ash or rowanberry ( Sorbus aucuparia ) and belongs to the rose family (Rosaceae). It is distributed over Europe, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and North Africa and is found in Germany mainly in the central German hill country, southern Germany, and the Alpine foothills up to an altitude of 900 m.
The service tree grows as a medium-sized tree up to a height of 10 to 25 m and its crown becomes up to 12 m wide with age. On shallow soils, however, it tends to develop into a large shrub or as a small tree around 5 to 10 m high. At a young age, it is extremely fast-growing and increases in shoot length by 40 to 60 cm per year. The coveted wood of the service tree is extremely hard, tough, and colored from white-yellow to reddish.
It is often offered under the name “pear tree” at top prices and is used for flute making and small furniture as well as for woodturning and as veneer. The buds of the service tree in winter are egg-shaped, 7 to 9 mm long, and green with a brown border. The maple-like, rounded, lobed leaves of the service tree are colored matt gray-green on the underside. In autumn the tree turns a splendid yellow-orange to red-brown color.
The white, bee-friendly flowers of the service tree are grouped in large panicles and bloom from May to June. They are reminiscent of apple blossoms but give off a rather unpleasant odor. The edible fruits that develop are egg-shaped and about 1.5 cm long. From October the wild service tree fruits, which are doughy-soft and leather-brown after the effects of frost, feed birds and mammals. The service tree is a poorly competitive pioneer tree that needs sufficient light to develop. Therefore it is hard to be found in our densely planted and rather dark forests.
Tip: In contrast to rowan berries, serviceberries can be eaten raw. The leaves of the rowanberry are also lobed, the fruits are colored orange-red when ripe and can be clearly distinguished from the service tree.
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Plant service tree: location, timing, and procedure
The service tree is a warmth-loving tree that should only be planted alone in larger gardens. The ideal location for wild serviceberries is on dry to fresh, nutrient-rich, and calcareous, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. The pH value can have a value between 4.5 and 8, i.e. it can be acidic to slightly alkaline. The service tree dies or hardly grows on wet soils or pure sand.
The best time to plant the trees is between October and late November when they are dormant and have lost most of their leaves. Wild service tree trunks, half-trunks, and trees that are still just a few years old are offered by most tree nurseries. As a tree in a stand-alone position, a distance of 4 to 5 meters to other plants should be maintained on all sides.
Dig a large planting hole at the future location, which is about 1.5 times the size of the root ball of the service tree. For an optimal start of growth, add some primarily organic slow-release fertilizer, to the excavated soil and mix both. The nutrients contained in the fertilizer granulate are released by soil organisms over a period of several months. Only then are they available for plant roots and there is no risk of nutrients being washed out.
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Now lift the service tree into the planting hole and take care not to set the root ball too deep. This is particularly important with grafted plants, the grafting point must be well above the ground. Now fill the planting hole again with the soil-fertilizer mixture and solidify the substrate around the plant a little. If the plants are already larger, two stakes should be driven into the ground across the wind direction and the tree should be secured with a stable tree connection.
The tree must be restricted in its movement so that young fine roots do not tear when the trunk is moved by the wind. In wind-exposed locations, there is also the risk that the tree will grow crooked. Finally, form a watering rim out of the earth and then water vigorously.
Tip: The service tree is self-incompatible, so it cannot fertilize itself. A second service tree in the garden as a pollinator increases the yield. The two trees cannot be clones. It is best to choose two different varieties or two plants from different nurseries or wild stocks.
Summary: plant service tree
- Soil: dry to fresh, nutritious and calcareous, well-drained
- Location: sun or partial shade
- Planting time: October – late November
- Planting distance: 4 – 5 meters
- Tie a tree for stability
Care of the service tree: cutting and watering
The service tree is easy to care for and hardly needs any attention. Freshly planted trees can be watered for support in critically dry summers. The service tree is surprisingly drought-tolerant; adult trees hardly ever need water.
Cutting is not necessary for serviceberries, but now and then sick and dead branch branches be removed and the crown should be thinned out if necessary.
Occasionally aphid populations, fruit tree sapwood beetles (Scolytus rugulosus ), and some fruit tree moths such as the plum spider moth ( Yponomeuta padella ) attack the service tree. However, vole bites on the roots of young trees are much more dangerous – a wire basket can help here when planting. Scab ( Venturia inaequalis ) and Armillaria fungus infestation are among the few diseases of the service tree and can cause the death of young or otherwise weakened trees.
Serviceberries are completely hardy, their leaves are only slightly sensitive to early frost in October. They can fall off prematurely – but this does not jeopardize new growth in the next year.
Propagate service tree
Serviceberries can be propagated generatively via seeds or vegetatively via root shoots or grafting.
Good results with seed propagation can be achieved by simply sowing the seeds in October after harvest and allowing nature to break the dormancy – but animals like to eat the seeds in winter.
Like most native tree species, serviceberry seeds also have a dormancy. The fruits contain numerous kernels that require a longer cold stimulus to germinate, i.e. they have to be stratified. You will find detailed instructions for the successful sowing of cold germs in every season in our special article. Serviceberries, propagated via seeds, bloom and bear fruit only after 15 to 20 years.
For asexual, vegetative reproduction, the service tree forms many root shoots after a certain age, which can be cut off and transplanted. An alternative is the refinement of young service tree shoots on basis of hawthorn (Crataegus ) or pears (pyurs). For this purpose, leafless vines are cut in late autumn or winter and grafted in early spring between the end of February and mid-March. In our article “Grafting Apple Trees” we present various methods that are also suitable for grafting serviceberries. Refined serviceberries fruit immediately, provided that the noble rice comes from an adult service tree that is already flowering itself.
Harvesting and using Sorbus torminalis
The edible fruits of the service tree can only be really enjoyed after the first frost or a longer storage period. Only then do the numerous fruits become soft and doughy and develop their apple sauce-like aroma. The harvest time for serviceberries, therefore, begins in October or November and ends in December. The fruits are cut off as a whole panicle and then plucked individually.
The taste is reminiscent of that of the medlar ( Mespilus germanica ) and numerous specialties such as serviceberry jam, compote, and juice can be made. Liqueur, French brandy “Eau d’Alizer” and the service tree schnapps, the “Adlitzbeerwasser”, are among the most valuable fine brandies made from wild fruit, for which around 150 euros per liter are paid. Dried serviceberries are real delicacies because they have an almond and marzipan-like aroma.