Growing Shadberry

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The shadberry, or shadblow tree (Amelanchier
spp.
), is so named because it usually blooms in the spring when the
shad are running upstream to spawn. Another common name, also based
on its bloom time, is juneberry. Its small, ovoid-to-rounded
purplish fruit, high in vitamin C, has been used for millennia,
eaten raw, cooked in sauces and pies, and dried for winter use.
When pounded into a kind of bread or paste, juneberries were an
important ingredient in life-sustaining pemmican. Shadberry is one
of the most useful trees or shrubs. Folk names, such as Indian
pear, sugar-pear and grape-pear attest to its sweet fruit. Another
common name is serviceberry, which you may have heard pronounced
sarvisberry.

When we moved to the Adirondacks, we observed that shadberry
trees we had come to adore growing wild at our previous Cape
Breton, Nova Scotia, home are an insignificant feature of roadside
bloom. So we decided to bring them back into our lives by growing
them in our gardens. While we knew that shadberries are variable
and easily hybridize, we did not realize that there are so many
different kinds available and that some are bred especially for
their fruit production. Nomenclature is a problem, but as Trevor
Cole observed in his book Gardening with Trees and Shrubs (Whitecap
Books, 1996), although they often are named incorrectly in
nurseries, “they are all equally nice, so the names may not be that
important.”

Mostly native to the New World–one species grows in eastern
Asia–shadberries grow from 6 to 20 feet tall, or more, depending
on the species and their variants. Their alternate leaves are
oblong to nearly rounded and vary from finely to coarsely toothed,
sometimes hairy or smooth, often noticeably bronzy when young. Bark
is smooth and grayish, another positive feature. Loosely formed
five-petaled spring flowers (similar to wild roses to which family
amelanchiers belong) grow in drooping clusters that are replaced by
drooping fruit clusters by summer. If you don’t harvest them as
soon as (or a little before) they’re ripe, the birds will get them
all. Shadberries have great value for wildlife. Not only songbirds,
but wild turkeys, ruffed and sharptail grouse, bobwhites, mourning
doves, skunks, red foxes, raccoons, black bears, squirrels and
chipmunks also like the fruit. Cottontail rabbits, beavers, deer
and moose are said to favor the twigs. In the wild, shadberries
grow in clearings and cutovers, in damp habitats and along
roadsides. In cultivation, they are amenable to most soils but
prefer sun.

For a tight shrub border, we chose the western species,
Amelanchier alnifolia, or Saskatoon berry, because of its small,
shrubby stature — easier to work into our landscape than a tree–and its superior fruit. It is tough and hardy to Zone 2. The
specimen we bought was advertised as 4 to 6 feet tall, so I assume
it is a selection. A. alnifolia ‘Regent’ grows to about 7 feet tall
and is reported to have dense foliage and good flowers.

I planted our shadberry between golden elderberry and the rose
‘Frau Dagmar Hartopp’. The persistent theme of use and beauty is
carried out here, too, where just beyond the garden proper I can
harvest rose petals, berries and hips in their season and enjoy the
beauty of these shrubs from spring into the winter months. If you
are lucky enough to grow shadberry (or whatever name it goes by),
you can substitute them for other wild berries in pie, muffin or
biscuit recipes. Shadberry jam and jelly is supposed to be
delicious, too, though I’ve not yet tried it.

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