In these parts, it’s a sure sign of spring when the white, pink-tinged flowers of the native serviceberry trees come into bloom. Those delicate blossoms burst open in our corner of the world a couple of weeks ago. Everywhere. All at once.
So even though almost everything else is bare and we were immediately plunged into yet another cold snap (so often our mountain springtime fate), it’s comforting that the serviceberry knows spring is here.
There are more than two dozen species of the serviceberry tree. Most all are native to the U. S., and they grow in practically every state. Depending on where you live, you may know them by another name. Maybe shadbush, juneberry, shadblow, or their Native American name, saskatoon. In the east, it’s just plain serviceberry, or sarvisberry in our southern mountain dialect.
There are lots of stories about how the serviceberry came by its name. The one I’m particularly fond of says that back in the day, the tree came into flower just as the roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable enough that a circuit-riding preacher could finally travel this way again to hold service—or sarvis. Time for marrying and burying to resume. That explanation may be a bit fanciful, but isn’t it a lovely notion?
There’s more to the serviceberry than its early blooms or the tales associated with it. A member of the rose family, the serviceberry is a good landscaping choice with its pretty spring flowers and its striking fall foliage. In the summer, the tree bears berries that turn from red to purplish-blue as summer wears on. Bird love them. So do humans who’ve had the good fortune to discover them (and the good luck to beat the birds to them). The ripe berries both look and taste a lot like blueberries and are eaten raw or used for jelly- and pie-making. They can be added to breads, dried like raisins, or turned into juice or syrup. Like blueberries, they’re also highly nutritious.
Most of the serviceberries around here are natives, twenty to sixty feet tall. With their upward-stretching limbs, it’s hard to get at those berries. But you can purchase shrub-sized ones, which makes berry collecting ever so much easier. We have a young serviceberry down our road (courtesy of the birds, no doubt), so we’ve been able to sample some berries. Delicious!
If you see a serviceberry in bloom, make a note of it. Then check back in July or so for some tasty—and free—eating. You won’t be sorry.