Spring in Appalachia: the Service (Sarvis, Sorbus) Tree Blooms

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

In spring in Appalachia we look through eyes of winter’s lingering to see signs of renewal.  Stretching up our mountainsides are trees with snow-white blooms, looking more like angel-clouds descended and brightening our still cool days.

It is our sarvis tree (also known as service tree, an Anglicization of the Latin sorbus torminalis, or wild service tree).  Its white blossoms are as welcome as the spring sunshine, as heartening as the balmy breezes that blow from the south to awaken all of nature and bring hope and beauty to a gray landscape.

Our north Georgia poet, Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958) wrote about the service tree in his second book of poems, Bow Down in Jericho (E. P. Dutton, 1950).  The  poem is so beautiful, so to-the-point.  It gives such a clear word-picture of the scene that no explication should be forthcoming.  Just enjoy his words, his insight, his flawless presentation in

We Could Wish Them a Longer Stay

Plum, peach, apple and pear
And the service tree on the hill
Unfold blossom and leaf.
From them comes scented air
As the brotherly petals spill.
Their tenure is bright and brief.

We could wish them a longer stay,
We could wish them a charmed bough
On a hill untouched by the flow
Of consuming time; but they

Are lovelier, dearer now
Because they are soon to go,
Plum, peach, apple and pear
And the service blooms whiter than snow.

                             -Byron Herbert Reece (in Bow Down in Jericho, 1950)

Reece in his poem pairs the “service tree on the hill” with more domesticated trees common to Appalachian orchards:  “plum, peach, apple and pear.”  There on the mountainside, the service tree bears its blossoms, fragrant in the early-spring.

It gives me a sense of connectedness to know that my grandmother looked out and saw the service (sarvis) tree blooming and declared, “Spring is here!”  And it was also with a sense of continuation back to her mother and grandmother before her who had likewise looked for this harbinger of spring on the mountainsides, lighting up the grayness before all the trees had budded forth.

A commonly held belief about why this tree was called the “sarvis” or service tree is likewise a part of our Appalachian culture.  It bloomed out in time to be gathered and taken to church services (sarvis) in the early spring.  It could also be used at spring funerals, some of which had to be delayed until the ground was thawed enough to dig the grave and bury the dead.  I can’t remember this happening, but I am told it was true, back when our winters were much more severe than now.  And once, much farther north than our North Georgia mountains, I did once visit in the Adirondak mountain region and saw a “holding place” where the corpse was kept until the thawing ground removed the resistance and allowed the shovels to enter to dig the grave.

And why did Reece, in his poem, relate the service tree blossoms to our better known “plum, peach, apple and pear”?  I think it was because they bloomed close to the same time in spring.  He could have included it because the service tree had fruits of its own coming in the fall season as a result of spring blooming.  The service tree bears a small edible fruit which is similar to a date.  This fruit is stringy and astringent.

My grandmother, Sarah Evaline Souther Dyer (an herbalist “doctor”) would have known that it was good for colic when boiled and made into medicine. Even the second part of the Latin name, “sorbus torminalis,” means “good for colic.”  Also, when the fruit was left until the over-ripe or “bletted” stage, it became less-astringent and good for use as food as well as for home-brewed medicines.

Go back now and re-read Reece’s beautiful poem.  Let its lines help you to see “the service tree on the hill.”  These “blooms whiter than snow” provide a lovely sight to winter-weary eyes.  “We could wish them a longer stay,” but alas, time moves on (and times, too, for that matter).  And so do our mountain ways, our connections to a past life slower in pace, our ways of “making-do” and appreciating what we have.  Even a show of spring and blossoms ready for “services”—whether church celebration or funeral wake —can remind us of those good times.  We can only prolong these white blossoms of our rich mountain life through passing on our lore, our stories, our memories.  They, like “the service blossoms whiter than snow” are “lovelier, dearer now/Because they are soon to go.”  Let us do what we can to help these rich stories remain among us.

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