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Tree 43: Whitebeam

Latin name: sorbus aria
Family: Rosaceae
Other names: chess apple, quickbeam, white hazel.
Origin: Native to the UK and widespread throughout Central and Southern Europe
Height: 15-25 metres
Lifespan: 70-80 years
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

The common Whitebeam is one of our native trees, mainly found in the South of England, often in hedgerows and on chalk downland. It is less common further north where it is usually found in parks. Localised pockets and ‘variants’ occur elsewhere, for example, around the Avon and Cheddar Gorge area.

The tree is dome-shaped. The leaf is oval with a serrated edge. When the leaves first appear in Spring, the surface is a silvery green and the undersides are almost white due to a thick layer of fine white hairs. In strong winds the leaves shimmer, leading the poet George Meredith to write: “flashing as in gusts the sudden-lighted whitebeam”.

As they age the leaves become greener and darker. In Autumn they turn an attractive golden / russet colour.

In May, clusters of small white flowers appear, followed by red, haw-like berries known as chess apples in north west England. These are edible when almost rotten. The seeds are said to contain hydrogen cyanide (which is also what gives almonds their distinctive taste) so should not be eaten in large quantities.

The berries are a favourite of birds, though less palatable (drier, less juicy) than rowan berries. Whitebeams are sometimes used as larval food plants by Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species including the short-cloaked moth.

Whitebeam timber is fine-grained and very hard. It is white when dry and yellow when wet. The species name ‘aria’ comes from the Latin‘aries’ meaning prop or battering ram. Traditional uses included wood turning and fine joinery, including chairs, beams, cogs and wheels in machinery. It was used for wheel axles and shafts before being replaced with iron.

The whitebeam was used by the Anglo-Saxons as boundary markers. The tree is said to have magical properties and was used to make wands and staffs.