There is a deciduous plant that grows as a small tree or shrub, is native not only to the Northeast but to most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere, is a popular ornamental species appreciated for its flowers and its fall color, and it produces a deep purple fruit that is both edible and delicious. George Washington had specimens of this plant on his Mount Vernon estate but even before that the Native Americans mixed the fruit with dried meats and fat to create pemmican, a food that is high in both energy and nutrition. This plant goes by many names, some of the more unusual ones are sarvis, saskatoon, and chuckley pear. Have you guessed what it is yet? Here are some of the more common monikers: wild plum, sugar plum, service tree, and shadblow. Have it yet? Let’s keep going. How about shadbush, serviceberry, or Juneberry? Now you know it, it’s Amelanchier.

IMG_20170907_122432960_HDR

Serviceberries

In fact, there are so many bits of lore surrounding the etymology of all of the various names attributed to this plant. Is it called sarvis or serviceberry because the fruit is similar to the European Sorbus or because its bloom in the spring coincided with the time that Appalachian mountain roads became passable enough for traveling clergy to hold services? Or is it shadbush or shadblow because the flowers appear when the shad are running? Or Juneberry because, you guessed it, the fruit appeared in June? I think that my favorite name is saskatoon which is derived from the Cree name for Amelanchier, misâskwatômina, which also lends its name to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where the plant is native.

amelanchier-flowers-pamms-photo

The delicate blooms of Amelanchier captured by Pamm Cooper

 

One of the most common species of this plant that is found in New England is the Amelanchier canadensis, known as the Eastern shadbush. It comes as no surprise that this plant has so many names as there are between 6 and 33 species (depending on the source) due to the wide variety of hybrids and the fact that it is also found in Asia (A. sinica or Chinese serviceberry) and Europe (where the species A. ovalis is known as Snowy mesiplus).

shadbush-pamms-photo-may-52015

Amelanchier canandensis, aka Shadblow in its tree form, courtesy of Pamm Cooper

Adding to the confusion is that fact that this plant can be a small tree or a multi-stemmed clumping shrub. This happens when the new growth is heavily browsed by deer and rabbits and the plant takes on a tree-like shape instead of a shrub similar to many of the its fellow members of the Rose family. In full sun or part shade it can reach 20’ tall and has an airy, open look to it that is compounded by the fact that the white flowers emerge before the leaves in the spring. If it is left to its own devices then the suckers that are produced from the base of the plant can grow into a thicket.

The fruit that succeeds the flowers starts as a yellow, single-stone, berry-like ½” pome that hang in terminal clusters of 1 to 4 fruit. As the season progresses and the fruits ripen their color shifts to red, purple, and finally the deep almost black purple that signifies maturity. We have received several calls from the Connecticut Poison Control Center requesting identification of the Serviceberry fruit as it appears to be as attractive to children as it does to birds and wildlife. It is always nice to be able to report that it is in fact edible and harmless. When fully ripe the taste is sweet and a bit tart at the same time. I had a bowl of them in the fridge and my husband ate one, expecting that it was a grape, and was a bit surprised.

IMG_20170914_190452695

The plum-like interior of the fruit

Amelanchier is not only grown for its fruit but as a popular ornamental shrub/tree. Although they are not drought tolerant and require good drainage and air circulation they do provide interest throughout the year. The delicate 2” white or pink blossoms appear in the spring around the time that the shad are running in the Connecticut River according to folk lore, generally in early April. The leaves follow the blooms and then the berries which are ripening now. Soon the leaves will turn from green to yellow to a beautiful orange or red and when they fall the tree will still provide interest in the form of its unusual grey bark which shows fissures as it ages.

IMG_20170907_122302258

The interesting bark of Amelanchier

In addition to the aforementioned deer and rabbits Lepidoptera caterpillars and other insects also feed on Amelanchier. Among these are spider mites, sawflies, flatheaded borers, bark beetles and aphids. I did not see any aphids when I took these images but I did see a specimen that was heavily populated with Asian lady beetles, a heavy predator of aphids, in three different stages of development.

Amelanchier are susceptible to several diseases including Fire blight, Leaf spot, and Gymnosporangium rust, which affects the leaves, twigs, and fruit with distinctive orange lesions and spores. The alternate hosts of Gymnosporangium are juniper and cedar.

Another common affliction of stone fruit that also infects Amelanchier berries is Brown rot. Brown rot, or Monilinia amelanchieris, fungi persist in blighted blossoms, twig cankers, or on mummified fruit. In the cold winters of Connecticut it only survives by overwintering on fallen infected fruits. Apothecia are produced on berries that overwintered on the ground. These small mushroom-like structures release ascospores which can infect blossoms and cankers but not the fruit. In more temperate areas when early spring temperatures combine with moisture the conidia, the asexual reproductive spores, will be produced on cankers or mummified fruit that remained on the tree. The conidia of Monilinia form linked chains on the blighted tissue of blossoms or twigs from which the mature spores will detach to be spread by air, splashing water, or insects.

When vectored by feeding insects these spores will entire fruit through the open wounds. In the moist, moderately temperatured climate of the developing fruit the conidia will germinate in 2-4 hours although it may remain latent in green fruit. Mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus that absorbs nutrients, and conidia, the spores, will sprout from the infected fruit causing the fruit to decay and turn brown.

When vectored by feeding insects these spores will enter fruit through the open wounds. In the moist, moderately temperatured climate inside the developing fruit the conidia will germinate in 2-4 hours although it may remain latent in green fruit. Mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus that absorbs nutrients, and conidia, the spores, will sprout from the infected fruit as small, circular brown spots that cause the fruit to decay and turn brown. Within these areas tufts of greyish spores appear as the fruit mummifies. The fruit may remain on the tree or drop to the ground until the spring when the cycle starts again. Cleaning up dropped fruit and debris will help to cut down on reinfection and it is suggested that Amelanchier be planted in areas where the messy dropped ripe fruit is not an issue.

Better uses for the ripened fruit include jams, pies, wines, ciders, or dried like cranberries for use in cereals, trail mix, and snack foods. Or you could whip up big batch of that Native American favorite, pemmican, if you happened to have a load of thin slices of bison meat that have been dried in the sun and pounded into a powder, mixed with melted fat and the dried serviceberries and formed into patties. Just in time to store it away to delight your family at Thanksgiving!

Susan Pelton