Guest Post by Leslie Day
Amelanchier canadensis, or the downy serviceberry tree, is one of the first to bloom in early spring in the northeastern United States. New York City has just gone through a long , brutally cold, and snowy winter. The snow has finally disappeared, but there are new puffs of white dotting the hills and meadows of city parks: the blossoms of the serviceberry tree.
This little tree has many common names: serviceberry, because it blooms when the ground finally thaws, so that burials can take place; shadblow and shadberry, because it blooms when the shad begin their northern migration into the estuaries off the Atlantic Ocean, like the Hudson River; and Juneberry, because the fruit ripens in June.
An understory tree, it only reaches 15-30’ in height, and has many slender trunks. This is a valuable native tree, and though small in stature it is huge in terms of its ecological value to wildlife. The beautiful flowers attract pollinators, the berries provide nutritious food for hungry birds, and the foliage is beautiful in every season, particularly in autumn. As it is one of the first trees to bloom, it attracts all kinds of pollinating animals, when there are few flowers available. The nectar attracts butterflies, and the pollen attracts honeybees, bumblebees, flies, and wasps. The purplish-red berries are sweet and delicious and are among the most favorite fruit of birds. Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings, song sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds, catbirds, and rose breasted grosbeaks are some of the beautiful birds that come to this tree in droves. Squirrels, chipmunks, and woodchucks also feed on the berries. Humans can eat the berries raw off the tree, cooked into pies and jams, fermented for wine, or eaten dried.
This little tree has a great botanical and cultural history as the fruit, seeds, leaves, and bark were important sources of food and medicine for native peoples. For many tribes, serviceberries were a common source of food in the summer. They would eat the berries raw as we do today, or mash them and form them into pemmican cakes made of animal fat, dried meat, and dried berries. Other parts of the plant are also edible. The Lakota of the Great Plains, used the flower petals, leaves and stems to make a drink, and the Cheyenne, also of the Great Plains, boiled the dried leaves to make a red tea.
Serviceberry shrubs were used for medicinal purposes by native Americans for the treatment of earaches, toothaches, the common cold, influenza, coughs, and fevers.
Woodworkers and indigenous people used branches, stems, and wood to make baskets, furniture, rope, tools, and harpoons.
In autumn, a blend of pink, orange, gold, and red creates gorgeous, colorful foliage. No two leaves have the same colors. There are times when they are so beautiful that, an inveterate leaf collector since the age of five, I gather each and every one I find on the ground.
Leslie Day is a biology and life science teacher at The Elisabeth Morrow School. She developed the City Naturalists Summer Institute with the Central Park Conservancy and is the author of Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City and Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, as well as her forthcoming book, Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City.