The sorb tree (Sorbus domestica) is a deciduous tree with grayish-brown bark that grows up to 10-20 meters tall. Different from the rowan or wild service tree with their totally serrated leaves, to which it is related, the sorb tree is recognized by its leaves, which are 3.5 6 cm long, and smooth on the lower third and serrated on the top two-thirds. Sorb trees flower from May to June and bear fruit in September and October. The pleasant smelling flowers appear in clusters of 35 – 75 individual flowers. Sorb fruit is 2 – 3.5 cm long and 3 cm wide, greenish-yellow in color, and often with a reddish blush on the side exposed to the sun. The shape can resemble apples or pears. They contain 1 – 4 brown seeds. Native to Europe in an area extending from southern France to the Balkan Peninsula to northern Anatolia, in Austria, the tree is listed as an endangered species. Trees are mainly found in lower Austria, in Vienna and in the Burgenland province. The fruit yield is considerable: the largest existing sorb tree in Austria, with a trunk diameter of 1.5 m can bear 500 kg a fruits per year. The sorb fruits have been appreciated as food since ancient times. Traditional products made from this fruit in the Weinviertel province include fruit juices, jams and fruit schnapps. The fruits can only be eaten when overripe, but the juice of unripe fruits, which is rich in tannins, is sometimes used in small amounts (1-3%) as an ingredient in apple cider. This hearty, tart cider is called speierling, the same as the German name for the fruit itself. In folk medicine the overripe fruits and their tannins played a major role as treatment against diarrhea, dysentery and vomiting. Today, the fruits are still processed into juices, purees, jams and liquors, some of which can be found on the local market. The sorb tree is a rarity in the Austrian woods where there are an estimated 300 to 500 mature trees left, which can be as old as 350 years. According to official records, there are only two trees left in Styria. In the Burgenland province there are currently 19 trees protected as natural monuments. For over 100 years, a sharp decline of the tree’s population has been observed in Austria. Today, the tree is threatened by the promotion of high forests, being blocked from sunlight by larger growing neighboring trees. It is also threatened by fire blight and the scab fungus that affects fruits and young tree shoots.
Image: Slow Food Archive