Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

French ales

Pyrus latifolius 2 An earlier note on this website records otmast as a Cornish name for Devon whitebeam (Sorbus devoniensis). In the herbarium of the Natural History Museum are two specimens, collected in north Devon by W.P. Hiern, which record two versions of an additional local name. A specimen collected in September 1878 has the name French ales, and a specimen collected in November of the same year has the name French hailes.
It seems that the name ‘hales’ was most frequently given to hawthorn (Crataegus) fruits, commonly known as haws, so ‘French hales’ can be interpreted as ‘exotic haws’.
James Britten and Robert Holland in the Dictionary of English Plant-names (1886) give French hales as a name for the fruits of Swedish white beam Sorbus intermedia, which were sold in Barnstaple market ‘for a half-penny a bunch’. However at the time they were writing whitebeams were poorly understood (Sorbus devoniensis was not described until 1957), so it is probable that the fruit sold in Barnstaple were in fact those of Devon whitebeam.

Image: specimen of Devon whitebeam, collected near Plymouth by T.R. Archer Briggs in 1871, now in the herbarium of the South London Botanical Institute; thanks to Chris Liffen.

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