Trailing Arbutus In Appalachia
Appalachian Vocabulary Test 18

Spring In Appalachia The Service (Sarvis, Sorbus) Tree Blooms

Folklore about the Sarvis Tree

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 explanation 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.

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 Adirondack 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 (a 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.

by Ethelene Dyer Jones


Hope you enjoyed today's guest post as much as I did. Hard to say what I liked best:  *Sarvis trees being named for the funeral 'sarvis' that had to wait through winter till spring thawed the ground for burying (so much symbolism behind waiting for spring's renewal to say a final goodbye to a loved one); *Byron Herbert Reece's lovely poem; *or Ethelene's comparison between the fleeting blooms of the Sarvis tree and the fading culture and traditions of our beloved Appalachia.


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You know me and poetry, loved it, and I love when the tree outside my house blooms, and then turns into a sea of flower petals, I write love notes to my sweetie in them...

lovely poem :)

there is something for you over at my blog :)

Spring is very beautiful around here this time of year. I wish the colors would last longer!!! Thanks for the information and stories that go with. nana

The guest post by Ethelene shines with her love of place, and is burnished by her wise words. Your commenters, Tipper, are quite a fantastic group, so full of heart and appreciation for what you do here in this living tapestry of lives.

p.s. Thank you for the oh-so-handsome Defender Brand journal. I will take it along on a short trip next week. I know it will help me germinate the idea seeds I have been carrying around for a whole garden full of words, enough to put up for the next winter. I am working on a post about your gift on my blog and will let you know when it's "up."

There are white flowering trees everywhere here in southwest Virginia, but I have no idea if they are Sarvis or something else. All seem to be about the same shape as well.

Whatever they are, I think they are beautiful... and also have made the pollen count extremely high! In our area, "high" is considered 190. The count today? 2400!! No wonder I feel like I have a very bad cold and have been miserable since going out for a long drive saturday! But it was gorgeous (I'm homebound, but got out and loved it).

Thank you for this article, and all the articles in your blog, Tipper!

Loved the poem, but the story by Ethelene made it even more personal. Thank you so much for sharing.

Very nice post! I learned some things I had not known about those tress blooming like white torches on our hillsides.

A big thank you for a wonderful, enlightening post. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

I love the poem, and the description of the "holding" place and funeral "sarvis". these old stories are fascinating to me and I can't get enough of them. Thanks so much for sharing.

Tipper, the Sarvis tree doesn't grow naturally here. Last week-end at Ocoee, our guide pointed out some and shared some folklore with us. I was thrilled to see it after your post last week, and felt like I knew it already. Thanks for sharing this beautiful post with us. Wanda in NA

Oh how I love flowering trees!

Tipper: Spring brings such wonderful blooms.

Beautiful perspective. It is comforting to internalize and 'remember'. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and love of Appalachia, Ethelene. And thank you Tipper for sharing your friend.

Oh, Tipper, this post has touched all of my senses! They're still dancing! From the scents to the visuals, from the words to the sounds. Just lovely! Thank you for sharing, Tipper, and to Ethelene!

You Are My Flower is playing now. The icing on the cake! :))

Wow , what a beautiful and heart felt poem , and a wonderful story by the guest poster, Ethelene, how true it is that if the future generations know anything of our lives and traditions , we must tell them every chance we get and be sure to write them down when we think about them less we to forget and they get lost in busy times and forgotten . Thanks again Tipper for the Blind Pig and The Acorn. Malcolm

Thank you, Ethelene, for sharing the poem and the perspective. I will never look at this spring bloom through the same eyes again!

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