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A tree 30 to 45 ft, sometimes over 60 ft high; branchlets downy when young, becoming by winter shining and quite glabrous. Leaves roundish ovate, 2 to 4 in. long, often nearly as wide at the base as they are long, the apex pointed, the base either truncate or broadly wedge-shaped, margin cut into triangular, pointed lobes which are sharply toothed, glabrous, dark lustrous green above, covered beneath with a greyish felt; ribs six to ten on each side; stalk downy, 1⁄2 to 1 in. long. Flowers white, 5⁄8 in. across, borne in corymbs 3 in. wide during May; stalks and calyx very woolly. Fruits globular, 1⁄2 in. in diameter, dull brownish red, dotted with large pale lenticels.
This interesting tree is, at least in its typical state, confined to a small area with the Forest of Fontainebleau as its centre, and has been known there since early in the 18th century. Its origin and status has given rise to considerable difference of opinion, but it is now generally considered to be a species of hybrid origin, and is said to come true from seed. One parent is certainly S. torminalis. The other must have been some member of the Aria complex, but not necessarily S. aria itself, since other species of this group may have existed in northern France at the time when it arose. Trees similar to S. latifolia have been found in other parts of France and may be of similar though independent origin. S. latifolia was at one time confused with S. intermedia (q.v.), though the two are really quite distinct.
S. latifolia makes a handsome specimen, with a short trunk and spreading crown, but is uncommon.
S. latifolia is the type of a large group of minor and mostly very local species believed to be apomictic, that derive, as it does, from S. torminalis and some members of the S. aria group. While some of these are near to typical S. latifolia, others differ from it markedly in leaf or fruit or both. Forty-one of these are recognised (but not described) in Flora Europaea, the majority from Central Europe. Descriptions are given below of the three British species; of ‘Theophrasta’, apparently known only in cultivation; and two Hungarian species of recent introduction, the descriptions of which are taken from the work by Z. Karpaty listed in the Bibliography.
S. bristoliensis Wilmott – A shrub or small tree to about 30 ft high; branchlets slender, glabrous by autumn, red-brown, sparsely lenticellate; winter-buds small, the scales glabrous except at the margins and the tips, brownish green with darker edges. Leaves of firm texture, oval, rhombic-elliptic or slightly obovate, obtuse at the apex, broad-cuneate at the base, 21⁄2 to 4 in. long, 11⁄2 to 3 in. wide (but on short sterile spurs narrowly obovate, tapered at the base), light green, glabrous, scarcely glossy above, clad beneath with a thin tomentum through which the undersurface shows green, lateral veins straight, in eight to ten pairs, the lower three or four ending in distinct but shallow lobes, which intergrade upward with less distinct lobes and finally with double or simple teeth. Flowers about 1⁄2 in. wide, white, in May or early June; inflorescence branches woolly, almost glabrous by autumn and then light brown. Anthers pink. Fruits broadly ellipsoid, the largest almost 1⁄2 in. long, bright reddish orange, glossy, sparsely dotted with small lenticels.
A very ornamental native species, known only from the Avon Gorge near Bristol (Leigh Woods and Clifton Down). It is triploid.
S. devoniensis E. F. Warburg French Hales. – This was once regarded as the Devon form of S. latifolia, which it resembles in its brown, heavily speckled fruits. It is, however, quite distinct in its leaves, which are about one-and-a-half times as long as wide (about as long as wide in S. latifolia), acute at the apex, rounded at the base, shallowly lobed. The influence of S. torminalis shows in the large, sharp projecting teeth terminating the laterals and the sharpness of the minor teeth. S. devoniensis was first recorded in 1797 by Polwhele, who gave its name as ‘French Hail’, where the second word, like the commoner ‘Hales’ is undoubtedly a corruption of the French ‘alise’ for the fruits of the service trees (S. latifolia is ‘L’Alisier de Fontainebleau’). The word is translated, or rather taken over, by Chaucer in The Romaunt of the Rose – ‘notes, aleys and bollas’ (nuts, hales and bullace).
S. devoniensis is commonest in north Devon and its fruits were once sold in Barnstaple Market. It also occurs in south Devon, east Cornwall and southeast Ireland. It is a genuine species in the sense that it breeds true from seed, a fact first established in 1888 by T. R. Archer Briggs, author of The Flora of Plymouth. See also ‘Theophrasta’.
S. karpatii Boros – A shrub to about 15 ft high. Leaves broadly ovate, to about 3 in. long and 23⁄8 in. wide, acute at the apex, rounded at the base, with seven to nine pairs of lateral veins, sharply and irregularly lobed, densely grey woolly beneath. Fruits globose, cinnabar-red, dotted with small lenticels. A native of Hungary, where it is confined to a small area in the southern part of the Vertes mountains, west of Budapest. Introduced late in the 1970s. M. Robert de Belder has this species in his collection at Kalmthout in Belgium, and praises it highly. Whether it is an improvement on our own S. bristoliensis remains to be seen.
The second of the Hungarian group to have been introduced, from the same area as S. karpatii, is S. pseudovertesensis Boros. This has similar fruits, but the leaves are ovate-oblong, to about 31⁄2 in. long, 2 in. wide, acute or acuminate at the apex, cuneate or slightly cordate at the base, with nine to eleven pairs of lateral veins, obscurely lobed, finely and bluntly toothed, greenish and thinly tomentose beneath.
S. subcuneata Wilmott – A small tree. Leaves elliptic to rhombic-elliptic, 3 to 41⁄2 in. long, acute at the apex, narrowly to broadly cuneate at the base, sharply toothed, lobed in the upper two-thirds, the lobes triangular, extending one-eighth to one-quarter of the way to the midrib, light green above, greyish white-tomentose beneath. Fruits brownish orange, becoming brown when fully ripe, lenticellate. This sorbus was described by Wilmott in 1934 from the Greenaleigh Woods, Minehead, and has a limited distribution along the coast from there to the wood above Watersmeet near Lynton. It is near to S. devoniensis but the leaves are always more or less cuneate at the base (never rounded) and are relatively narrower. A tree at Watersmeet itself, usually identified as ‘No Parking’, is anomalous and has been identified as both S. devoniensis and S. subcuneata, but is nearer to the latter.
S. ‘Theophrasta’. – A tree growing as large in height and girth as S. latifolia and indistinguishable from it in fruit. It is similar to S. devoniensis, and quite distinct from S. latifolia, in its leaves, but these are not lobed as in S. devoniensis but merely double-toothed. They are ovate or elliptic-ovate, 3 to 41⁄2 in. long, 7⁄8 to 3 in. wide, acute or subacute at the apex, rounded or broad-cuneate at the base, with eight to eleven pairs of veins, dark green and glossy above, greenish grey and closely woolly beneath (S. devoniensis ‘Theophrasta’ Hensen; S. aria var. Theophrasta Hort.; ?Pyrus Theophrastii Hort.; S. latifolia Hort., in part, not (Lam.) DC.; S. mougeotii Hort., not Soyer-Willemet & Godr.).
This handsome relative of S. latifolia was first distinguished as such and fully described by Dr K. J. W. Hensen in 1966 (Dendroflora No. 3, p. 62 and fig. 1). The type is a plant received from the Dutch nurseryman P. Lombarts, who listed this sorbus in his catalogue for 1947/8 as S. Theophrasta. Mr Lombarts’ stock came from a tree at Kew (no. 695), which was received from the Edinburgh Botanic Garden in 1922 as S. aria var. theophrasta. The tree at Edinburgh still exists, as does its offspring at Kew, but is of unknown provenance. It is perhaps of significance that the Lawson Company of Edinburgh were offering ‘Pyrus theophrastii’ as early as 1874, but ‘theophrasta’ – ‘food of the gods’, in allusion to the edible fruits – is almost certainly more correct. Another plant at Kew, agreeing perfectly with ‘Theophrasta’, was received before 1913 under the name Pyrus (or Sorbus) mougeotii, though it does not in the least resemble the sorbus to which the name S. mougeotii properly belongs.
In describing ‘Theophrasta’ Dr Hensen suggested that it was the same as the unnamed, cultivated sorbus shortly described by E. F. Warburg in Flora of the British Isles, under S. devoniensis. Certainly it is a good match for a set of specimens in the Kew Herbarium, from Burgh Heath, Surrey, annotated by Warburg as ‘the most commonly cultivated form of S. latifolia s.l. [in the broad sense]. I have not yet found a name for it. It is pretty near to S. devoniensis.’ There are many other specimens from southern England in the Kew Herbarium, from cultivated or perhaps naturalised trees, which too agree well with ‘Theophrasta’.
S. ‘Theophrasta’ makes a handsome tree, similar at a distance to S. latifolia, and with identical fruits ripening at the same time. At Borde Hill in Sussex, where the two grow near together, ‘Theophrasta’ has made the finer specimen and comes into leaf about two weeks later.
S. × vagensis Wilmott ?S. rotundifolia (Bechstein) Hedl.; ?Pyrus rotundifolia Bechstein, nom, illegit.; ?S. confusa Gremli, nom. ambig.; S. × confusa Gremli ex Rouy & Camus, nom. illegit.; Pyrus decipiens of some authors, not Bechstein – A natural hybrid between S. aria and S. torminalis, occurring occasionally with the parents, and at one time much confused with the various microspecies of the S. latifolia aggregate. Indeed it is impossible to determine to which category an intermediate between S. aria and S. torminalis belongs unless it has been studied in the field, or unless its breeding behaviour is known. These casual hybrids are often of low fertility, but in compensation for that they sucker freely when coppiced, so that a single plant may eventually give rise to a thicket of considerable extent.
The correct name for S. aria × S. torminalis is uncertain, for all the older names that have to be considered are either of uncertain application or illegitimate. S. × vagensis, although recent (1934), is probably the correct name and certainly the best founded, since the type-tree, at Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley, is well known and has been studied. Wilmott, who described it, took it to be a species, believing that the identical younger plants near it were seedlings. These, however, proved to be suckers, and plants raised by Edmund Warburg from seeds of the original tree were not uniform.
S. × vagensis is confined in Britain to the Wye Valley, no doubt because S. aria and S. torminalis so rarely occur together in this country. But this hybrid (called S. × confusa by French and some other botanists) is reported to be fairly common on the calcareous plateaux of Burgundy and Lorraine, and near Lake Annecy.
S. × vagensis is variable in the shape of its leaves, and of no greater ornamental value than S. devoniensis or S. subcuneata. Of more interest as an ornamental is the sorbus distributed by Messrs Hillier in the 1930s as Sorbus × magnifica Hesse, from an apparent confusion between this plant and the S. aria magnifica of Hesse. Its fruits are not unlike those of S. torminalis, which it also resembles in giving good red or yellow autumn colour, but the leaves are scarcely lobed and are loosely woolly beneath. What appears to have been a very similar plant grew in the Münden Botanic Garden in Germany; it was bred from and found to be a hybrid. A plant in the Winkworth Arboretum, Godalming, is probably this “S. × magnifica” but it seems to be rare in gardens. The original tree, which may have come from Messrs Hesse under some other name, grows in the Sarum Road nursery of Messrs Hillier.
specimens: Borde Hill, Sussex, pl. 1907, 40 × 73⁄4 ft (1978); Battersea Park, London, South Drive, 56 × 6 ft (1983); Oxford Botanic Garden, 56 × 83⁄4 ft (1983); Kilkerran Castle, Ayrs., 23 × 81⁄2 ft (1984); National Botanic Garden, Glasnevin, Eire, 50 × 81⁄4 ft (1974).
S. bristoliensis – There are two examples at Westonbirt, Gloucestershire, in Broad Drive, measuring 36 × 21⁄4 ft (1972) and 33 × 21⁄2 ft (1977), both planted in 1945.
S. ‘Theophrasta’. – An example at Edinburgh measures 40 × 33⁄4 ft (1985).