A walk in the Arboretum in early spring is always a treat for the eyes, as the bare winter canvas awakens with the promise of beauty and renewal. Among the early-season proclaimers are the serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) with their brief but timeless show of white flowers in late-April easing the transition of seasons. Observant wanderers in the Arboretum landscape will sweep their gaze below the canopy as they walk down Meadow Road, along the Azalea Border, and past the maple collection to the edge of Faxon and Dawson Ponds to find serviceberries’ soft and welcoming display. Amelanchier species have a long history of heralding spring for people in North America—one pre-dating the arrival of Europeans by hundreds of years.
For peoples of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, serviceberry blossoms helped mark the passage of time, indicating when to plant their corn. For others who fished, like the Lenape people and others, the flowers coincided with shad running up river to spawn—a signal which gave rise to another common name, shadbushes. Ojibwe people boiled the bark to create a disinfectant wash, and an infusion derived from the wood helped ease the afterpains of childbirth for Haudenosaunee women. Many indigenous peoples crafted arrows for hunting and protection from Amelanchier branches.
In addition, Amelanchier was valued in the pre-colonial and colonial eras as a food crop, its fruits mashed, dried, and stored for sustenance throughout the year. The fruit, sometimes mistakenly called a berry, is actually a small pome, a type of fruit unique to the rose family (Rosaceae, which also includes apples, pears, and cherries among its pome-producing members). Appearing in early summer, the fruits mature to deep-purple, black, or red. Early settlers in New England learned that the pomes of Amelanchier could be sweetened and made into pies or jams, but they recommended haste: fruits ripen quickly and the competition with birds who favor them can be fierce.
The specimen pictured here, A. arborea, can be found growing near Bussey Brook at the intersection of Valley and Hemlock Hill Roads. The Arboretum grows 133 specimens of Amelanchier, featuring approximately sixteen of the twenty species in the genus, all but three of which are native to North America. Valued both horticulturally and as a staple for native wildlife, serviceberries have grown in harmony with the people of our region for centuries. As with many who came before me, it won’t feel like spring until I walk through our New England woods and behold their modest but ethereal display, marking time and promising new growth.