Monday, October 11, 2010

Sorbus intermedia (Swedish Whitebeam)

A handsome street tree in the UK, noticeable at this time of year, until the birds eat the fruit. It is native to the Baltic region, including southern and central Sweden, in what is known there as the ekregion ("oak-region"), i.e. where the forests contain oak trees as well as pine, spruce etc; in Norrland there are no oaks. In Sweden Sorbus intermedia is often planted in wind-alleys and along the coast, being notably windfirm. Its popularity in the UK has more to do with its resistance to air pollution. It may have arisen after the last ice age as a natural cross between Sorbus aria (Whitebeam) and Sorbus aucuparia (Rowan) - a similar origin, probably, to some of our rare endemic species (S. leyana, S. anglica, S. minima, S. arranensis), though these are mostly shrubs.

[Patrick Roper gives a different (doubtless much more authoritative) lineage, along with lots of other information about the tree:]

The Swedish name for the tree is "oxel", of unknown derivation, but perhaps from the same root as other ancient fruit-words (such as "akarn" (ollon - acorn)) - the word "oxel" would therefore have originally denoted the fruit only. - as per apple, chestnut, and many other trees.

Steffe's much-loved photo-series of an old native "oxel" in pastoral country south of Stockholm:

The name "intermedia" refers to the distinctive leaf shape, intermediate between the entire whitebeam and the pinnate rowan. Though obviously a Sorbus, the shape strikes me as vaguely oak-like, too.

The fruits contain two ovules, which potentially form two pips. Most of the fruits I examined contained only a single pip.

The wood was formerly used to make rulers - inch-rulers in those days (Swedish "tum") - and by woodcarvers to make spoons, spokes, axles etc.


Appendix - a couple of photos from 14th June 2015. This was the same tree, in the little park at Lower Borough Walls, Bath. Returning to Bath after the lockdown years, I was sad to find the tree had gone. 

Sorbus intermedia - leaves in June

Sorbus intermedia - developing fruits in June



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