At this time of year, forest margins and hedgerows are punctuated with airy sprays of white blossoms: serviceberry! This early-blooming member of the rose family is known by several different regional names. Another is Shadbush, which reflects the fact that the small white flowers open at the same time of year as the spawning runs of shad fish occur in eastern coastal rivers. I found a couple of explainations for the name serviceberry. One is that the flowers open early in the spring, when burial services for early pioneers who had died in the winter were conducted, once the ground thawed. I liked this better than the more prosaic explanation that serviceberry is a corruption of the word “sarvisberry”, a referance to the berries’ resemblance to the fruits of the sarvis tree (European mountain ash).
There are 20 or so species in the genus Amelanchier, which grows as a shrub or small tree. The species hybridize readily, so it can be difficult to identify the species of an particular plant with assurance, but in this area, the Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is common. It produces rather unpalatable red-purple fruit later in the summer which, while not a favorite of people, are enjoyed by a number of birds, including cedar waxwings, orioles, veeries and catbirds. The fruit of other species, such as the Western Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), which produces Saskatoon berries, are reputed to be very tasty.
The pretty white flowers, with long, narrow petals, are bisexual and insect pollinated. Serviceberry bushes are quite slow-growing and long-lived. They are tolerant of a range of conditions, from dry to moist, and can tolerate the shade of the forest understory. Their spring blooms make them a good source of nectar for early-emerging insects.