Serviceberry is probably one of my favorite trees. Every year when I see those beautiful,l tiny white flowers, I know that winter is FINALLY over. Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) is also know as: Amelancher, shadwood, shadbush, shadblow, juneberry, saskatoon, sugarplum, wild-plum, and chuckley pear. It is part of a genus of about 20 species of shrubs and small deciduous trees in the Rosacea (Rose) family. They are quite tolerant to a wide variety of environmental conditions and they do not have any serious disease or pest problems. Serviceberry is native to Michigan although there are numerous species throughout the U.S.. Mature trees rarely exceed 20 feet tall with a 6-8 foot spread however, there are a few in my area of Michigan which are. They bloom their beautiful Lacey flowers in mid April and the fruit ripens in June. Should you happen to be heading north in the spring, you can see good sized stands of them in the median of I-75 near the Standish exit. If you are interested in harvesting the berries, I would suggest that you go out in the spring (I do this when I’m out “shrooming”) and use some plastic tape (the same kind land surveyors use) to mark your trees. It is much easier to spot them in spring than it is in June. This way, when everything is green, all you have to do is look for the neon orange tape.
Known horticulturist, Michiael Durr once said “a serviceberry pie is the rival of the best blueberry pie”. Serviceberries produce blue-black, round berries, which are red before they ripen (in June), are about 1/4-1/3″ across, the size of blueberries, which they closely resemble. They even have the crown frilled opening on the end away from the fruit stalk. The berries have a strong, sweet and penetrating flavor, a little like pears, while the soft seeds add a nutty, almond-like flavor. Some years there are excellent crops, but in other years, you can hardly find any berries. These shrubs are finicky about their requirements so simple environmental variations from year to year can make or break the berry yield. Because of this, you may want to supplement with other fruit if it is a tough year. Something else that can really effect their yield is birds. In some places, birds attack the fruit as soon as it ripens. A favorite of cedar waxwings, catbirds, rose breasted grosbeaks, baltimore oriole, and brown thrashers. All told, there are 35 species of bird that have been documented eating these delicious fruits. They also provide food for 23 other species of animal such as: chipmunks, squirrels, even beaver and bear. Browsers, particularly deer, moose and elk even enjoy them. So, you can see where keeping an eye on the trees can really pay off.
There are many uses for service berries, just use your imagination. Muffins, cobblers, jams, juices, jelly, pie, raw or cooked, even dried like raisins. Native Americans used them like blueberries, dried them, and added them to stews and pemmican. Some berries are bitter, while others are sweet, juicy, and delicious. When you use them to make jam, try to use the berries that are a little more tart. This will significantly improve the flavor. Also, they contain pectin so you won’t need to add much thickener. Nutritionally, serviceberries contain significant daily values of total dietary fiber, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), and biotin. Some of the essential minerals that have been found in these berries are: iron, manganese, magnesium and copper. They have a similar nutritional profile to blueberries. They are notable for polyphenol antioxidants which are also similar in comparison to blueberries. Particularly for serviceberry phenolics, inhibition of the cycle-oxygenase enzymes involved in mechanisms of inflammation and pain have been demonstrated.
Harvesting the berries is relatively simple and I have found a couple techniques that I have found work well. The first is, to hold a bowl beneath a bunch of ripe berries, pull the bunch of berries through the open fingers of your other hand. Raking the ripe berries into the bowl. The second (and my personal favorite) is to lay a large tarp on the ground under the trees and use a stick to gently knock down the ripe fruit. Once the fruit is on the tarp, you can just pick up the edges of the tarp and the berries roll to the center. Once they are all in one spot, it is much easier to get them into the bucket. With any luck at all this will be a good year for gathering these tasty little berries. Don’t forget to take kids with you when you go gathering. It is a good healthy way to get them outside. Even though they may complain about having to put down their DS, once they get out there, they will have a great time. Happy hunting!