By Spike Knuth © 1990
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
Issue: May, 1990
Like twinkling clusters of stars suspended in a dark woodlands universe, the feathery white or pale-pink flowers of the serviceberry appear before its leaves unfold or when they are just beginning to bud out.
Serviceberry is one of the earliest of shrubs to blossom in all of its range, and in Virginia, begins blooming in March and April. Each flower has five petals about one half inch long. The wood of the serviceberry is quite heavy and would probably be as valuable as oak if they grew larger. Indians in the Pacific Northwest used the wood of one sub-species to make arrow shafts.
Scientists have tabbed it with the name Amelanchier arborea. As to the origins of its many other names, they are explained by a variety of tales and legends. People in Appalachia supposedly called it serviceberry because its blooming coincided with the springtime reappearance of the circuit-riding preacher. Another story relates that it flowered when the ground was thawed enough to allow a grave to be dug and a funeral service would be performed.
In the mountains, it is often called "sarvisberry" or simply "sarviss." Sarvis comes from the Shakespearian English form of the Latin word "sorbus" or "sorbum," a name the Romans gave to the fruits of a similar plant that was related to the modern day apple and pear trees. Words like "sorbate" and "sorbic acid" originate from the same root. Sarviss may have also been a corruption of the word "service" in an old English dialect that early settlers of southern Appalachia spoke in.
A common name in eastern Virginia is shadbush. This too apparently alluded to a time of burying the dead and some old ballads tell of burying a loved one "when the shadbush was in bloom." This was also the time of the beginning of the spawning run of the shad, which also may have given rise to names such as shadbush, shadberry or shadblow.
It produces a small reddish-purple fruit that ripens beginning in June which accounts for yet another common name - Juneberry. In other places it is called bilberry, sugar pea, Indian pear or saskatoon. These berries normally measure about a third to a half an inch in diameter, although the bilberry of northern climates is much larger and constituted an important food source for the Indians. The berries are edible but pulpy, with a sweet, though mild flavor which has been described as being almond-like or even cherry like when lemon juice is added. They are used in pies, cobblers and muffins, and they can be dried and used like raisins.
Since they are among the first wild fruits of the year, foragers will have to compete with robins, waxwings, grouse, turkey and quail. Squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, deer and even black bears compete for the berries and some of them utilize the bark as well.
While serviceberries are conspicuous in the spring woodlands, they are slowly swallowed up by the greenery of other budding trees and shrubs making it difficult to find the berries come June. Its leaves turn red with the coming of autumn.
Serviceberry species are found from Georgia to Newfoundland; west to Kansas and Minnesota; and west across the northern tier of states to the Pacific Northwest. Other related species are found in Japan, Korea and in Great Britain where it is known as "snowy mespilus."