IX: Checker Tree

While the other trees play chess, this one does checkers.

Checker tree fruits with their distinctive spots. Photo by Hornbeam Arts.
Checker tree fruits with their distinctive spots. Photo by Hornbeam Arts.

Good morning. Today is nonidi, the 9th of Brumaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate l'alisier, a service tree that has extremely prized hardwood.

The name is supposed to be based on the fruit's spotted skin looking like a checkerboard, but, as you can see in the photo above ... not really. A more plausible origin is its association with beer (checker berries predated hops as the go-to flavoring for beer), as pubs in the pre-literate era often advertised themselves with a simple checkerboard placard as a way of saying "beer here." Which came first, the berry or the pub sign? Nobody knows.

We've been living in light lately. All the vegetables and flowers of the past few weeks have been either sun-facing or sun-hungry, which is an interesting choice for the plants that come to fruition in the dying light of autumn. Of all these, however, none hungers for the light more than the rare and highly prized checker tree.

Sometimes called the "wild" service tree – or misidentified as a Swiss pear or mountain ash or rowan – Sorbus torminalis has a hardwood so strong, smooth, pliable, and beautiful that its wood was often drawn as being rainbow colored in medieval books.

Now it's endangered across much of its native range in Northern Europe, but despite the high price its wood fetches it's not because of over-harvesting. It's kind of because we're underharvesting everything else.