Out in the forest this time of year, you might see faint clouds of white floating below the canopy. These are the blossoms of an understated yet beautiful understory tree known by several names – shadbush, shadblow, serviceberry, juneberry and Amelanchier sp. among them.
This small tree has earned several names for its early spring flowering. Bearing masses of delicate white flowers, it is known as shadbush and shadblow for it blooms the same time that the anadromous fish, the American shad, migrates up rivers to spawn. In colonial New England, blooming after the winter thaw, it was known as the serviceberry, signifying the time when burial services could commence after the deep freeze of winter.
Shadbush blooms in mid-April before trees put on any foliage, its blossoms visible throughout the forest. Their flowers are busy with early season pollinators, primarily a range of native bees but honey bees as well. The results of all this pollination can be tasted in early summer.
Also known as juneberry, this tree produces berries that attract even more attention than the flowers. Ripening red to blue-black, and reminiscent in size and taste to blueberries, juneberries are eaten by more than 40 species of birds. They were dried by Native Americans and combined with venison and bear fat as pemmican, a portable and high energy food. Colonists additionally adopted them for pies though harvesting the berries puts one in direct competition with all those birds. To harvest ripe berries, place a sheet beneath the tree and shake the smooth-barked gray trunk vigorously. Euell Gibbons sang the praise of these berries stating “I’m sure that God put Juneberries on earth for the use of man, as well as for the bears, raccoons, and birds. Let’s get our share!” Though known to be sweet but less juicy than blueberries, some trees bear rather insipid fruit.
Keep an eye out in April for this member of the forest community. If you spy any shadbush now while they are blooming, make note and return around the solstice for a taste. If you miss that, watch for a red foliaged understory tree in autumn and keep that in your memory bank to start the cycle of admiration the following spring. Happy hiking.