Serviceberry: Harbinger of Spring


Ryan Trapani, Catskill Forest Association

Some years are better than others for fruit foraging: some seasons are “slim pickins” while others are “easy.” This year it has been “easy pickins.” Apples, elderberries, blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, chokecherries, raspberries, and black cherries could be found in abundance throughout most of the region. It seemed to be a bumper year for many fruit trees and plants. Bumper years are those when a plant produces an abnormally high amount of fruit compared to others due to weather, pollination or health. Many of the fruits mentioned are easy to find since they remain on the plant for a considerable amount of time.

Another fruit tree that all too often goes unnoticed — serviceberry ― also experienced what seemed to be a bumper year. Its fruit is absolutely delicious and is highly desired by wildlife. Some native peoples ranked this berry as most important because of its desirable taste and its short-term availability. 

In former times in New York and New England, services for the deceased during the colder months were delayed until warmer times. Coincidentally, when the weather began to warm up, serviceberry trees flowering along roadsides, field edges, and sometimes in the forest would indicate it was time to give service
and bury the dead.

If you do not recognize the serviceberry tree by this name, don’t feel bad. It has many! It is also known as shadbush, or shadblow, because the fruit begins to ripen (for some species) when the shad fish run. Some call it Juneberry because the fruit sometimes ripens in June, while in the western United States and Canada it is called Saskatoon. In the central Catskills it is sometimes called bilberry.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) is native to almost every state and province of North America including the U.S., except the state of Hawaii, and Canada. In being so cosmopolitan, serviceberry should be better known. However, it is a small tree that usually grows to approximately 20 feet or so and lives for only 10 to 20 years. Although its wood is close-grained and strong, 20 years of growth is hardly enough time to provide a timber resource. Its bark is smooth gray with indistinct long, vertical lines that make it easily confused with a small American beech tree. In fact, serviceberry buds are long, narrow and pointed like the buds of beech. The leaves are oval to round with fine-toothed margins growing alternately on the stem. However, they can vary in appearance throughout the crown of a single tree.

There are 16 species in the genus of Amelanchier in the world! That they can crossbreed with each other creates a challenging academic exercise in differentiating one from the other. In the 19th century many taxonomists did not actually believe that the genus of Amelanchier should contain more than one species since they are so similar.

There are a few ways to easily identify serviceberry if you know when and what to look for. In early spring, before the leaves have foliated, most other trees seem dull and brown. This is the time to find serviceberry and mark it quickly with flagging because it will most likely be the only tree flowering. Because there are many species of Amelanchier, time of fruiting varies from June to early August. Generally, early July seems to be the best time for picking serviceberries in the Catskills. The fruit is red when it first appears and turns to a dark blue-purple color when ripe. Similar to apple, serviceberry is a pome-fruit. They grow on long stalks, and if you’re lucky you will find them growing in clusters which makes for “easy pickins.”

Sometimes serviceberry can be found growing as a single tree, but is usually found growing as multiple trunks with a round crown. Like all trees, especially fruit trees, it grows best where there is plenty of sunlight, such as in fields, roadsides or hedgerows. However, when it is suppressed under a forest canopy it seldom fruits since it cannot photosynthesize enough carbohydrates to do so.

Serviceberry may be one of the most underrated-tasting fruits. It’s delicious! Initially, the taste is completely original; afterwards, it tastes like maraschino cherries. Others believe the aftertaste to be like that of almonds, which is probably why Native Americans revered this berry and used it to sweeten other foods such as deer, moose or bison. These meats were pulverized and dried. Afterwards, serviceberries were added, fried in fat and cut into loaves creating a food called pemmican. Pemmican was used on longer journeys where eating fresh foods would be limited. The inner bark was used to make a tea in order to treat female and birth-related ailments. Serviceberries add a delicious flavor when added to ales and beers; and these small berries work well in pies, jams and jellies. Although the wood does not reach a merchantable size, French explorers did notice that Native Americans used the wood to make arrows and called the tree bois de fleche.

Humans are not the only organisms that utilized this tree. Over 40 species of birds, including songbirds, feed upon serviceberries which is why there is such a short timeframe in which to harvest them. Black bears, foxes, and white-tailed deer feed on the fruit during the summer months; deer feed on the buds during the colder months.

Plant serviceberry if you’re looking for a tree to plant around the house. Unlike other trees, it does not grow very tall and therefore will not be an expensive undertaking to remove later on, like other trees, if it becomes a problem. The flowers are aesthetically pleasing especially during a time when most other trees lack any foliage. Placing this tree close by will allow you to harvest the fruit
before other wildlife does.

Serviceberry is easy to transplant except during the months when it is flowering. Make sure to dig far enough around its base to reduce the chances of harming the fine roots and always keep them moist. Seeding can also be done by harvesting the ripe berries and planting immediately in a half-inch of soil and covering with mulch. In the spring, remove the mulch and allow plenty of sunlight after the seedling has established. Protection from browsing herbivores may be required.

Keep your eyes open for serviceberry by looking for white flowers in the spring, dark blue-purple fruits in the summer, and red, orange or yellow foliage in the fall. Good luck!


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