The first flowering tree of spring

Common Name: Serviceberry, Sarvisberry, Shadblow, Shadbush, Juneberry, Saskatoon, Sugar plum, Sugar pear, Indian pear – The North American tree is similar in appearance to the European Service Tree (Sorbus domestica) from which its name is derived. The Latin word sorbus means ‘the service-tree.’ The sorbus name is likely the provenance of the calque word ‘sarvisberry,’ an alternative common name fir serviceberry in Appalachia.

Scientific Name: Amelanchier spp – The genus is taken directly from amelanchièr, the French name for a similar European flowering small tree. The French word derives from a Celtic word similar to the Gaulish word for apple, avallo; the tree produces a berry-like pome that has the general appearance of a miniature apple.

Potpourri: There are about twenty species of Serviceberry worldwide, fifteen of which are indigenous to North America. The various species are generally characterized by spring blooming mostly white flowers that produce edible berries in the early summer. The two species of the Southern Appalachians are the downy serviceberry (A. arborea – arbor is Latin for tree) and the round-leaved serviceberry (A. sanguinea – sanguinis is Latin for blood, here referring to the blood red color of growing twigs), though the serviceberries readily hybridize so there is a modicum of generic taxonomic confusion. The global range and striking appearance of the serviceberry, a cynosure of the woods at the first breath of spring, have resulted in significant interaction with human cultures manifest in a variety of common names and myriad medicinal and practical uses.


The conspicuous star-shaped flowers of Serviceberry or Shadblow 

One of the most common, and most likely erroneous, Appalachian aphorisms is that the serviceberry got its name from the use of these the first flowers of spring at church services held for the early colonists by peripatetic preachers. This myth is perpetuated to the extent that the derivative name sarvisberry is said to be the result of poor diction on the part of these same Appalachian people, the word ‘service’ being presumptively too hard to articulate in the hillbilly argot, thus the derivative ‘sarvis.’ The serviceberry purportedly provided floral decoration for the baptizing the babies born during the winter from marriages consummated during the previous season and for the spring internments and funerals for the winter dead who could not be buried in the frozen ground. The fallacy of this story is due to the inexorable fact that the service-tree was well known to the Europeans who colonized North America as the sorbus, which is nearly a homonym to sarvis. The likely scenario is that the tree was first called the sorbus-tree which then became the service-tree which then became the serviceberry and not vice versa. It must be admitted, however, that the mental image of the serviceberry boughs festooning rustic mountain churches has some aesthetic and romantic appeal.

The names Shadblow and Shadbush are more legitimately names associated with eastern North America in that they are relevant to another seasonal event, the running of the shad (Alosa sapidissima). The shad, like the salmon, is an anadromous fish which is to say that they live in sea water and return to fresh water to breed (catadromous eels do the reverse, living in fresh water and spawning at sea). Shad were once as popular on the east coast as salmon are on the west coast; the Chesapeake Bay was the nexus of the commercially important shad industry in the 19th Century. Shad fish and shad roe, each female lays between 100,000 and 600,000 eggs in a gelatinous mass, were important food sources for the riparian denizens of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It is therefore not unsurprising that the tree that provided the mnemonic to get out the nets was the serviceberry cum shadbush. Overfishing at the end of the 19th century combined with the pollution of the 20th century led to a steep decline in shad populations, the catch diminishing from a high of over 17 million pounds in 1900 to below 2 million in 1970. There is currently a moratorium on shad fishing in Maryland and Virginia in an attempt to restore historical populations. In the mythology of Appalachia, the apostate hillbillies of the Huck Finn ilk called the serviceberry shadbush as a dichotomy to their more religious cohorts.


The berries are really pomes, like miniature apples

The early flowering of the serviceberry-shadbush results in one of the first fruits of summer, the Juneberry. The ‘berry’ isn’t really a berry but a pome, as it has the characteristic papery inner wall around the seeds (like an apple) and not seeds embedded in the flesh (like a grape). The fruit looks somewhat like a miniature apple with matching color that darkens to purplish-black as it ripens with a taste reminiscent of the blueberry enhanced by the almond flavor of the seeds, a sweet, nutty taste. The Juneberry was an important food for the Native Americans, particularly those of the northern Great Plains such as the Cree and the Ojibwa, who gathered the berries of the Western Serviceberry (A. alnifolia – the leaves are shaped like the alder tree), drying them in the sun to make cakes for winter provisions. The Native American trail food pemmican, a concoction made from dried lean meat (sometimes called jerky) and animal fat, was typically flavored with Saskatoon berries. The name ‘Saskatoon’ for the Juneberry is derived from the Cree word for the pome-berries which has numerous spellings that are variations of misaskwatoomina. The toponym of Saskatoon, a town on the east bank of Lake Saskatchewan, was coined by John Lake, the leader of the New Temperance Colony who had obtained the land grant to the area, in August 1882 when a young man came into his tent eating red berries. On being informed they were saskatoon berries, he exclaimed “you have found the name for the town.”

Juneberries or Saskatoon berries are highly nutritious, containing numerous vitamins and minerals, notably riboflavin or vitamin B2 (3.5 mg > 100% RDA), iron and manganese (1.4 mg, 70% RDA), and dietary fiber. They have polyphenol antioxidants similar to those of the blueberry and there is some recent scientific validation to the historical use of the berries, twigs and roots of the Amelanchier genus trees by Native Americans for treatment of a diverse assortment of medical conditions. The Cherokee used the bark of the Downy Serviceberry (A. arborea) as a treatment for diarrhea and as an anthelminthic against intestinal worms; the Iroquois made a ptisan (herbal tea) that was administered to postpartum women to prevent hemorrhaging. The Western Serviceberry (A. alnifolia) was more widely used as a general medicinal. The Cree used a decoction of twigs to treat the common cold, a decoction of roots to treat persistent coughing, and various combinations as a febrifuge; the Blackfeet used a decoction of the berries as ear medicine, and, when covered with a piece of soft animal hide, as eye medicine. Perhaps the most unique application was that of the Flathead, who used the sharpened wood of the smaller branches to draw the fluids from the swollen ankles of their horses.