It’s Spring–The Shadbush Is Blooming!

For the last week or so, my forest walks have yielded a special delight.

Here and there, against the still-winter grey of the forest, is a full, rounded, bright spot of white.  It’s the serviceberry, or ‘shadbush,’ in bloom.  This slender little tree signals that spring has indeed come to the forest, and soon other trees–the dogwood and the redbud–will follow along with blooms of their own.  But the serviceberry is first.

I have long heard that the reason the serviceberry is also called ‘shadbush’ is that the tree blooms just when the shad are spawning.  I like the folklorish sound of that and decided to learn a little more.

As it turns out, ‘shadbush’ is just one of many names for the serviceberry, or, in Latin, amelanchier.  And yes, in olden times, people along the eastern seaboard noticed that these Atlantic Ocean-dwelling fish entered the rivers and streams that flow into the Atlantic, and swam up these waterways to spawn in the early spring, just when these delicate woodland trees were blooming.  Hence the name ‘shadbush,’ and also ‘shadblow’ and ‘shadwood.’

But the serviceberry has another name, ‘ juneberry,’ for its dark, blueberry-looking berries that ripen in early summer.  These berries are a big hit with many birds–bluebirds, cedar waxwings, robins, ruffed grouse, and pheasants, to name a few, and also with foxes, bears, and other mammals.

The name serviceberry has its own folk history.  All three possibilities I’ve heard for the name’s origin have to do with church services.  One is that the blooming serviceberry in Appalachian forests meant that mountain roads had become passable again after the winter snows, and that church services would resume, since the circuit-riding preacher could now make it to the small country churches.

Another church-related explanation is that the blooming of the serviceberry coincided with Easter services.  And the third, that with the blooming of the serviceberry and the passability of the roads, funeral services could now be held for those who had died during the winter.

In learning about some of the serviceberry’s other names, I inadvertently solved a small mystery that had arisen for me many years ago.  I just learned that a name for a western variety of serviceberry is ‘saskatoon.’  Many years ago, on a family trip in Montana, we encountered saskatoon berries.  I had never heard of them and wondered where they grew.  No one I asked seem to know, but I assumed they grew on some shrubs in that area.  Now I know that saskatoon berries are from a type of serviceberry tree that grows in the mountain west.  So not just animals enjoy the fruit of the serviceberry;  we humans do as well.  

Indeed, there are more than a dozen varieties of serviceberry tree throughout the U.S. and Canada.–April Moore 


One Response to “It’s Spring–The Shadbush Is Blooming!”

  1. Diane Says:

    Interesting history and warm connection through folklore to people who have enjoyed this bush for generations. Love the pictures from your land!

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