By Chris Frye
ach year, naturalists and wildflower enthusiasts eagerly await the blooming of the shadbush, a spectacular sign of spring’s arrival. The large, snowy-white flowers blossom in such profusion that the feathery petals obscure its branches. While the rest of the woods are still bare and gray, the shadbush throws a floral party and becomes as conspicuous as a ticker-tape parade.

Depending on the species and the locality, these shrubs and small trees bloom in Maryland from early April through May, just before the Eastern dogwood. By midsummer, each delicate, five-petaled flower develops into a sweet berry, similar in size and color to the blueberry.

The shadbush yields a bountiful crop of berries, and this cornucopia never goes unnoticed by wildlife. Bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, redstarts, blue jays, orioles, cardinals, towhees, pheasants, ruffed grouse and many other birds descend on a laden shadbush like forty-niners on Sutter’s Mill. Raccoons, opossums, foxes, bears and even bobcats are also enthusiastic patrons at the shadbush fresh-produce stand.

What’s in a Name?
The plant is known by a variety of names, each reflecting an aspect of a particular culture. Where streams and rivers flow into the Atlantic, the name shadbush came about because its blooming coincided with the time when shad migrated upstream to spawn.

The name serviceberry is said to refer to church services. One story holds that blooming coincided with the return of circuit preachers to settlements after winter’s end and the resumption of church services. Another holds that blooming coincided with Easter services, considered the most important of the year. A rather morbid explanation is that when the serviceberry tree bloomed, graves could then be dug in the previously frozen ground and delayed funeral services held.

The derivation of sarvisberry or sarvistree is the same as that of serviceberry but the spelling and pronunciation reflect backcountry usage. The name is particularly common in Appalachia.

Some names are associated with the plant’s edible and flavorful fruit. Juneberry refers to the month when its tasty berries ripen and are collected for eating and making jelly, wine, muffins or pie. The name Indian pear tells us that Native Americans were known to harvest the berry, which has a pear-like taste. Early settlers shortened the Cree name for the plant, mis-ask-quah-toomina, to saskatoon. In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, saskatoon berry pie ranks on par with apple pie.

Shadbush in Maryland
Scientists who insist on standardizing names and spoiling all this fun, assign this group of woody plants to the genus Amelanchier. Amelanchiers grow throughout Maryland and in habitats that include the woodlands and tidal swamps of the Eastern Shore and the mountains of Garrett County. Seven species occur in Maryland, and there are perhaps twice that number of hybrids and local varieties.

The most common species are treelike plants that occupy woodlands having no particularly noteworthy characteristics. The more rare species tend to be low-growing shrubs that occupy particular habitats and are stoloniferous—that is, they spread by means of underground stems or runners, like strawberries do.

Maryland’s most common species is the downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). Tall and treelike, as suggested by the Latin word arborea, the species occurs statewide and is frequently seen along woodland trails and borders.

Found in the higher elevations of South Mountain and the Catoctins of Frederick County, and west into Garrett County, the smooth serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) is similar to the downy serviceberry. Besides producing the tastiest berries, the smooth serviceberry is one of the showiest species. At a half-inch to an inch long, the petals are quite large and the leaves are coppery red. However, the leaves are barely open at flowering time, which is a typical trait of Amelanchiers.

The third arboreal species is the Canadian serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), which is singular in its tolerance of swampy soils.

Four Rare Species
The four remaining species are rare in Maryland, and one is rare globally. The most unusual plant is the Nantucket shadbush (Amelanchier nantucketensis). There are fewer than 60 populations worldwide, and the nearest one to ours is more than 300 miles away. The Nantucket shadbush is a cliff dweller and is exceptional because it produces andropetals, which are modified petals that look like large, ivory-colored stamens and bear pollen.

The low Juneberry (Amelanchier humilis) is our most vigorously stoloniferous (spread by runners) species. Its core range is the northeastern United States and the adjacent Canadian provinces. Three populations exist in western Maryland, all on exposed outcrops of limestone. Because the low Juneberry occupies an exceptionally rare habitat—calcium-rich soil in full sun—the plant has hardly any competitors.

The roundleaf serviceberry (Amelanchier sanguinea), a close relative of the low Juneberry, also favors calcium-rich soil and is very unusual in Maryland. The shrub-like appearance and showier flowers of the roundleaf serviceberry distinguish the plant from its low Juneberry cousin.

The running Juneberry (Amelanchier stolonifera), another stoloniferous species, occupies a habitat nearly opposite that of the low Juneberry and is listed as “state-threatened.” Populations of running Juneberry also require the full sun of exposed outcrops, but they need extremely acidic soil. The running Juneberry is often found growing from the cracks and crevices in near-solid, pavement-like outcrops of sandstone.

Native American Lore
As has been said, Native Americans were no strangers to the shadbush. Many tribes relied on the shadbush as an important source of food, as the dried berries berryhelped sustain them through harsh winters. The berries were also crushed with dried meat, nuts and melted fat to make pemmican, an Indian version of the World War II K ration that was carried by hunters and warriors. The Blackfoot would move their summer camps to locations where the berries were just ripening.

Shadbush berries were also used as medicine. Iroquois women ate them to regain strength after childbirth. They were also used as a laxative and as a treatment for liver trouble, and the inner bark or roots of the shadbush served as a remedy for diarrhea. That dried berries were regularly used as an item of trade shows the high value that American Indians placed upon them. Frontier settlers also came to value the berries, and they traded needles and various manufactured goods for them.

The dark brown wood of the shadbush is exceedingly hard, strong and close-grained. Indians used it for making arrow shafts. Settlers later used the wood for making handles for tools and equipment.

Still Edible, Still Incredible
Today, the shadbush is popular as an ornamental planting, enjoyed for the clouds of beautiful and fragrant flowers it produces in spring, and berries that attract some flamboyantly attired birds. Leaf color in summer can be coppery red or bluish in cast, either adding an interesting touch to any garden. In fall, the leaves turn astonishing shades of yellow-orange and reddish purple. And in winter, the graceful shape of its bare gray branches take on the look of high art.

Planted close together, shadbush shrubs and trees make an excellent windbreak, and the branches intertwine to form a living fence. On top of its four-season appeal, this great American native is very hardy, resistant to drought and air pollution, and requires little or no maintenance.

Though the Amelanchier group has outlived its once-important cyclical functions — when to fish, go to church and plant cabbage — its delicious berries are still to be had, and the shadbush is still an incredible sight in spring. This April and May, consider taking a walk in the Maryland woods when the shadbush is blooming. If there are any in your locale, you cannot miss them. In June, however, you can expect to have a harder time finding a diner that serves saskatoon berry pie. Of course, you can always plan a road trip to Saskatchewan…

Chris Frye...
is the state botanist with DNR's Forest, Wildlife & Heritage Service.  Vaughn Deckert contributed to this article.

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