Sorbus domestica, the True Service Tree

We are indebted to Marc Hampton for contacting us with this fascinating account of a natural history phenominon which may explain why Porthkerry Church was dedicated to St Curig. Also fascinating to know that an entire species of tree was first discovered in Porthkerry.

The tree has a unique combination of apple-like fruit and pinnate (Ash-like) leaves. Please see the illustration enclosed. This combination of fruit and leaf is not shared by any other species in this country. Today the fruit is rare at Fontygary, where there are fourteen trees, and only slightly less so at Porthkerry, where there are over sixty trees extending over 200m of cliff. This is the largest population in Britain, due to the nature of the cliffs, allowing suckering. Most sites comprise a single plant. It was early realised that the leaf-form was markedly different at the two local sites while at the same time exactly the same within the sites, suggesting that suckering must have been going on for a considerable time, and that the trees could not have been a recent arrival. For the last few years we have been doing much DNA work, hampered by the difficulty of actually getting to the plants, along with Austrian scientist Jan-Peter George, and the results of this, showing a presence of several thousand years, are due to be published next month in the Journal of Botany.


It was realised that the place-names of the two local sites had the same final element, W Ceri, in the previously unsatisfactorily explained place-names. These names occurred from 947 at Porthkerry, and 1587 at Fontygary. In the critical work by G.O.Peirce, written some twenty years before Sorbus domestica was found,  regarding Porthkerry he says: 'It is the second element W  ceri, which has been the object of considerable speculation. On the basis of the form Porthkiric of 1566 it has been suggested that this element is the W Saint's name Curig, and it would appear that several of the forms listed and which are dated to after (this date) have been inspired by this interpretation, and, possibly formed deliberately to conform with it........the earlier forms evidenced do not seem to bear this out. It is difficult to find examples of the form Kerry for Curig'. Researching St.Curig, he does not appear to have any connection with Porthkerry.


In the 14thC Book of Taliesyn there is a poem known as the Cad Goddeu, or Battle of Shrubs. This fanciful, and early tale about an army becoming trees then goes on to a long list of tree and shrub names in Welsh which we would not have otherwise. In the critical edition in Celtic Linguistics Marged Heycock translates the relevant passage:


KERI kywrenhin gwrthrychyat gwrthrin.    The strong SERVICE TREE, one who anticipates the battle.

The occurance of the name at just these two sites, and the tree at just these two sites, is remarkeable. It is very hard to argue any other possibility. She takes the identification from a Welsh-English-Latin Dictionary of 1592, by an unknown hand, where the tree name is found thus: Ceri, cerien. Pren Ceri. Sorbus, servis tree.


The description, without a name, occurs also in Nennius' Historia Brittonum of 829 AD:

By the river called Guoy (Wye), apples may be found on an ashtree, growing in the steep wood near the mouth of river.


This quote from the Marvels of Britain was well known, but came to the fore in 2014, when six trees close together were found on the Wye at Lancaut, and near the mouth of the river. Here, the tree is in the company of Arthur (militis, not King), who occupies the bulk of the Marvels section. However the place-name of Lancaut, on the east bank of the Wye, is in England today, and the name is old W, since the area went over to English Kings in the year 956. There is a very early form of the name from c.700 as Lanceri. One wonders what the significance of the place could have been at that time to have been recorded. The area is a tight bend of the Wye, within high cliffs of horizontally bedded carboniferous limestone. There was formerly a settlement of a sort here, unfortunately all that is left is a tiny ruined church on steep ground alongside the river. Crucially the site is opposite the cliff where Sorbus domestica occurs, with the only unobstructed view.

The Church at Porthkerry is a bit of a mystery, as it does not seem to have a documented history, but that is probably just my failing. The position of the Church, separated from the bulk of the population, is also odd. One wonders if in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, when I think the Church was founded, there were any other buildings in the close area at all. However, there is an uninterrupted view of the trees, with the modern view cleared, and it appears that the Church is as far south as it could be, for a clear view, without encroaching on the area of the iron age fort, which of course would rather have spoiled the effect.


At the time of the Norman invasion and afterward it was, apparently, fairly normal to plant Churches at former Celtic sites, pagan and otherwise. It seems as if the saint's name was chosen for it's similarity to the tree, as at Lancaut, where the original saint is said to have been Cewydd (OldW Ceuit).


Lastly, a depiction in sandstone of a Mother-Goddess, found in a well at Caerwent (four miles from Lancaut) and dating from the second or third Centuries. She is sitting in a chair facing forward, bare-breasted, holding a pinnate leaf in one hand, and an oval fruit in the other. This is again a clear illustration of Sorbus domestica, and a very early one. The face is deeply Celtic. (illus. enclosed).

So you can see that despite the efforts of the Norman clergy there remains some evidence of Sorbus domestica as a sacred plant. Because of the fruit itself, which is edible but has a strong flavour, it seems likely that it was some sort of fertility symbol. There is some evidence for a cognate form of the name on the continent.  The character of Taliesyn, seer and magician, says that he was born of the fruit! Briefly, the rivers Camel and the Avon (W afon - river) both appear in the various old W tales, as places visited by Arthur or his men. However, it is only where the place-names have retained their early Celtic ones that the tree names have been retained. At Porthkerry, today, there is probably much less of the trees than formerly, before the lowland below the Iron Age fort was lost to the sea, they are much harder to reach than they once were, and smaller, with markedly less fruit.


It is tempting to guess at the presence of the Roman building at Cold Knap, the extensive Iron Age hillfort at Porthkerry, and the arrival of the Normans at the beach below are all connected in some way with Sorbus domestica. It can be hard from the long years of the modern mind, to imagine people actually knowing and seeking the trees, and endowing them with sacred powers, nevertheless, it appears that this was indeed the case.


Over twenty years ago a tree species, Sorbus domestica, the True Service Tree, was found growing on the high cliffs of Porthkerry, and this was originally published as new to the British Isles in 1994. The tree was found in a second place at Fontygary (c>g by soft mutation), and later still at Shirehampton on the Avon, and comparatively more recently in Cornwall (on the river Camel), and in the high cliffs of the lower Wye at Lancaut. The tree is always very rare over it's whole range extending to Crimea in the east and the Sahara, at oases, in the south. However, though it has only recently been known to science evidence has slowly grown to show that it was certainly known in the past, perhaps several hundred or more years ago.

godess tree2

The Significance of the Cad Goddeu Tree List in the Book of Taliesyn. Marged Heycock  Celtic Linguistics 1992. Amsterdam, Philadelphia.

The Place-Names of Dinas Powis hundred.  G.O. Peirce.  1968  University of Wales Press.

Historia Brittonum of Nennius.  Various Eds.

Sorbus domestica L. Rare but Diverse. The Journal of Botany. 2016.  J.P.George, J.Woodman, M.Hampton.

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