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Nature Watch: Botanists working to bring serviceberries to New York

In 1810, David Thompson wrote in his journal, “On the great Plains there is a shrub bearing a very sweet berry of a dark blue color, much sought after, great quantities are dried by the Natives; in this state, these berries are as sweet as the best currants, and as much as possible mixed to make Pemmican. It affords the most nourishment in the least space and weight.”

Thompson was talking about berries of shrubs and trees of the genus Amelanchier, known in the East as serviceberry, shadbush or Juneberry and in the West as saskatoon. The name shadbush derives from the fact that these species blossom at about the time the shad (a game fish) are migrating to their spawning areas in late April and early May.

Richard St-Pierre has written authoritatively about this plant, describing it as “a treasured prairie tradition, hardy and tolerant, resistant to low temperatures and drought, and productive for many years.” About its fruit he says, “Although often compared to the blueberry in terms of its size, texture and flavor, the saskatoon is more closely related to the apple, mountain ash and hawthorn, members of the rose family. The edible, sweet fruit has a distinctive flavor with subtle almond overtones. The fruit is not a berry but in essence a tiny apple.”

Serviceberry blossoms are very attractive. Their five petals are narrow, delicate and most often white, although occasionally pink or yellow. These flowers appear in clusters, making the bush or tree stand out in contrast to the rest of the forest community. Two places you can see them during their brief blooming period are along the Kanyoo Trail in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and in Reinstein Woods near the education center.

In the West, serviceberries are raised commercially. Now research that hopes to establish this crop in northern New York is being conducted at the Cornell Willsboro Research Farm in Willsboro, a community near the south end of Lake Champlain. According to nursery manager Michael Davis and botanist Michael Burgess of SUNY Plattsburgh, Amelanchier species have the potential to become a major novel fruit crop in New York.

Davis and Burgess have collected wild specimens from New York, Maine, Pennsylvania and Vermont, seeking to determine which species offers the tastiest fruit and will best adapt to regional growing conditions. They are also evaluating species growing on commercial farms in western Canada. Meanwhile, a number of farmers in the Finger Lakes region are pioneering serviceberry plantings.

Five varieties have been identified here in Erie County. Their common names are downy, oblong-leaved, running, Allegheny and round-leaved serviceberry. But despite all those species, I know few local botanists who have ever tasted their berries.

Joanne Schlegel told me about Jim Battaglia’s experience with one species: “Two years ago, Jim and I with others found a large colony of a rare shrubby Amelanchier on the dunes at Morgan’s Point. They were in gorgeous full flower, but identifying them was going to be impossible without fruits as well. Jim had the bright idea to bag a few branches in gauze to keep the birds away. Eight weeks later, the only fruits present in that large colony were the ones inside the bags. The birds had stripped everything else.”

So we are not the only ones who appreciate these tasty fruits. It may be necessary to use netting to protect the maturing serviceberry fruit, as is sometimes done with blueberries. St-Pierre adds that wind and late killing frosts can damage or even kill the plants. Given our experience this past winter, these are important concerns.

Despite these problems, I hope that we’ll soon have an additional delicious fruit crop here.