As you drive through the northeast in April before the leaves have burst, you will notice white-flowered trees dotting the understory of forested hills. Some of these are cherries—black and choke; pin cherries are later—but many are Amelanchier canadensis and A. arborea.
The Amelanchier have a habit that differs from the cherries, distinguished by the geometric arrangement of the cloud of flowers. While the Prunus (cherry) species produce billowing patterns of white against the gray and light green of the spring canopy, the Amelanchier have a more stratocumulus array, hung in subparallel ranks around the central trunk or trunks.
All of these are members of the Rosaceae, which also includes the later flowering fruit trees—apples, plums and pears—that flower after their leaves are out of the bud. The Amelanchier genus is diverse and widespread in North America. The species commonly interbreed, and so are difficult to tell apart. In the east we have A. arborea, which is generally an upland species, and A. canadenisis, which likes wetter feet and is more common in New England and maritime Canada.
Amelanchier has at least three common names, which vary by region. Two of these names refer to its time of flowering. “Serviceberry” (spelled “sarvisberry” in the Appalachians, based on the local accent) is related to religious services, according to many sources. Some folk etymologies insist this has to do with the thawing of the ground in April, which allows for burial services to take place. Historically, bodies could not be buried in the winter and were stored until the thaw in a vault at the cemetery. This origin is suspect if serviceberry is a common name in the southern part of this genus’s range where the ground does not freeze in the winter.
More tenuous sources suggest that the traveling ministers resumed their services in rural parishes in April after taking the winter off from their rounds. This has credence only because the colonial history of the United States—roughly the 17th and 18th centuries—coincided with the tail end of the Little Ice Age, a cold snap that began in the Renaissance. This gives the impression that winters used to be colder that they are now. However, in the Middle Ages it was warmer than it is now (the “medieval warm period”), making it possible to grow grapes in England and for the Vikings to settle Greenland.
Another service-related origin story connects the popular name for Amelanchier with the significance of Easter services, which always occur between late March and mid-April. This explanation doesn’t have anything to do with the severity of winter climate, but depends on whether you believe that someone passing a flowering tree on the way to church would name it based on the immediate destination.
The final story that attempts to explain “serviceberry” stems from a corruption of Sorbus. This genus is also a member of the Rosaceae, and is well known in Europe as the rowan, mountain ash or service tree. The last name is a slurred variation of the Latin genus name, which is derived from the Old English syrfe. It is purely an aural association, since neither the Latin nor the Old English names are related to the verb “to serve” in either language.
A species of mountain ash is also found in the New World and the leaves of Sorbus are pinnate and rounded. That is, it doesn’t look much like an Amelanchier, which has larger, single leaves with pointed tips. However, both are small understory trees that tend to be multi-trunked. and have white flowers. Given that the American robin received the same name as the European robin in spite of having little in common other than a red breast, it seems believeable that Amelanchier could have been dubbed “serviceberry” for its resemblance to Sorbus.
The even more poetic name for Amelanchier along the east coast of the United States is “shadbush” or, more esoterically, “shadblow” (apparently another slurring corruption). A. canadenesis is often found along waterways, so the association with the anadromous herring isn’t far-fetched. The American shad (Alosa sapadissima) runs up rivers along eastern North America from maritime Canada to the St. John’s River in Florida. (Other species run up rivers in the Gulf of Mexico.) The shad most definitely begin to run in April, and they run in large numbers. In many rivers this was (and to some extent still is) a commercially harvested fish. It is excessively bony, but the flesh is sweet and light.
“Anadromous” fish live most of their lives in salt water and run up rivers into fresh water to breed. They are plankton feeders in the ocean, but they do not feed once they enter fresh water, which probably lightens and sweetens the taste of their flesh. “Catadromous” fish live in fresh water and migrate to salt water to breed. Eels are the best-known example of this life cycle.
During one summer in graduate school I worked on the fish ladders on the Connecticut River. Atlantic salmon (another anadromous fish) was being reintroduced to the drainage. We were charged with catching every tenth salmon that went by and counting all the shad and blueback herring (another shad species; Alosa aestivalis) that swam by the observation window. Now, whenever I drive through the countryside and I see the shadbushes blooming, I see in my mind’s eye the rushing crush of thousands of shad bodies drawn upriver to the shadows of the Amelanchier to spawn in the shallows of clear, stony streams.