Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Chequers

According to W.A. Bromfield in his Flora Vectensis (1856) the fruit of wild service-tree, Sorbus torminalis, ‘is well known in Sussex by the name of chequers, from its speckled appearance, and sold both there and in this island [Wight] in shops and public markets, tied up in bunches, principally to children.  At Ryde they go under the name of sorbus-berries, but are not much requested’.

Patrick Roper, who in 1991 kindly made available his unpublished typescript concerning the economics and sociology of wild service-tree, noted that while some people squeeze or sieve the pulp out and eat only that, the fruit is best consumed in its entirety.  Roper’s father who spent his childhood on a farm at the edge of Epping Forest, in Essex,  often recalled that ‘all the rural children knew where wild service-trees grew, and great enthusiasm and energy was displayed every autumn in obtaining the fruit which were known as sarves, sarvers, or sarvies’.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that the name Chequers, sometime given to pubs in southern England, is derived from the wild service, or chequer, tree, although at present most, if not all, of their signs depict chess-boards.  Thus ‘at the Chequers in Smarden [Kent] there is a wild service growing in the rear courtyard’.   According to D.C. Maynard in  his Old Inns of Kent (1925): ‘Mr Mills, a local archaeologist, who has lived in Smarden for over 84 years … informed me that the Chequers sign is not that generally accepted – the early form of ready reckoner – for he could well remember when a boy seeing the sign of the inn garlanded in the autumn of the year with the fruit of the chequer tree’

Adapted from Vickery’s Folk Flora (2019).

Images:  main, pub sign of the now closed pub, ‘The Chequers’, Market Hill, Royston, Hertfordshire, April 2023; upper inset, specimen, collected in Catford, Kent (now in the London Borough of Lewisham), by W.H Griffin on 27 September 1902, now in the herbarium of the South London Botanical Institute; middle inset, cultivated, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, October 2023; lowest inset, Sevenoaks, Kent, July 2023.

Updated 4 October 2023.