Look along New Hampshire roadsides in late April and early May for the first spring blossoms that pop open on shrubs and trees of the Amelanchier family, commonly known as Shadbush, Shadblow, Serviceberry or Juneberry. The white blossoms open just as the leaves are unfolding, so they appear to be growing on dead branches. The flower’s five petals are long and floppy, with a cluster of long stamens and pistil in the center that are pollinated by early spring bees. The effect is like a white cloud of blossoms that seems to float in thickets or along woodland edges. Pin Cherry is the one similar tree that blooms about the same time.
A gardening friend who grew up in NH explained the story behind the name Serviceberry - it blooms when the ground thaws and spring burials take place. The flowers are cut for the service. For this reason it is planted in cemeteries. Its "clock" function is also the reason for the name shadbush – it blooms when the shad run up the rivers. Its fruit ripens in June; the reason for the name Juneberry. The blue fruits that resemble small crab apples with multiple small seeds are very high in vitamin C and other nutrients. Birds seem to know this and gobble up the treats as soon as they ripen. Native Americans discovered the nutritive value of the fruit and used the berries in making pemmican, a dried food made from pounded dried meat combined with fat and the dried fruits. It was eaten in winter and on long land voyages and saved many populations from the horrors of scurvy. Saskatoon pie is made with the berries and is a renowned delicacy in western Canada where the shrubs are called Saskatoon bushes. Hopefully, this year I will remember to look for the fruits before wildlife consume them all.
Both the shrub and the tree form grow in New Hampshire. The many forms of the species confuse even experts who can’t agree whether there are many different species, or many natural hybrids. No two books agree or provide consistent information. So last spring I was determined to figure out for myself the difference between the blossoms of the shrub form and those of the tree. I just became more confused. But in the process I discovered amelanchier shrubs and trees everywhere. I carried my camera with me and found taller and bigger tree forms as I learned to look higher and higher in the roadside thickets for blossoms.
Finding New Hampshire's Champion Serviceberry
The ultimate coincidence occurred the day I took my car into the garage in early May for its annual servicing. When I went to get it, I was told to find it in the back lot. It was a glorious spring day and I marveled at a small Pin Cherry tree in the overgrown field that was literally bent over with the weight of blossoms. Then I happened to glance up and saw more blossoms at the very top of the grove of trees growing along the Souhegan River. There was no way to reach these blossoms to inspect closely, but I had my camera. None of the surrounding trees had leafed out, so blossoms were really like a white cloud at the very top of the tree canopy. The trunks of the two trees with the blossoms looked nothing like cherry bark, so I was confident that these were Amelanchier trees. I quickly rounded up the NH Big Tree Program team for Hillsborough County, and we were able to find the top of our biggest Amelanchier tree and get measurements which include the height, the diameter of the trunk 4’ from the ground, and the average crown spread. We had found the current state champion!
If you notice a giant Serviceberry tree this spring, visit nhbigtrees.org and see how it compares!
The UNH Cooperative Extension and the NH Division of Forests and Lands sponsor the NH Big Tree program in cooperation with the National Register of Big Trees through American Forests.