The Hunt, Week Ending 4/12/2020

You guys! I finally found serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.)!

Each spring, I’ve hunted in vain for these native trees, some of the earliest fruit producers of the year. Also known as juneberry – presumably for the timing of the fruit – these small trees share some of the same habitat as pawpaws, hazelnuts, and redbuds. Well, I had found everything else. Just not the elusive serviceberry.

I had read a description of the spring flowers as looking like snowballs on the branches. Other authors say serviceberries are among the first trees to flower, making them easy to spot from a distance. Locally, however wild pear, cherries and crabapples are already blooming, many also with five-petaled white flowers.

For instance, I was excited to see this guy on a recent outing to the woods….

White flowers... but not serviceberry
White flowers… but not serviceberry

… but note how it has leaves already, and may be relatively tall (it’s hard to gauge from this distance). Of course, even if it is a serviceberry there’s no way I’d be able to reach it!

I discovered another, similar tree and was able to reach it for some photographs…

Another tree with white flowers ... still not serviceberry
Another tree with white flowers … still not serviceberry

… but now I know this is also not a serviceberry.

How did I finally learn what a serviceberry looks like?

Reverse foraging!

I’d purchased a serviceberry several years ago from Direct Native Plants, since I’d all but given up on finding them in the wild. (Same reason I planted my own hazelnuts.) It was one of the centerpieces of my edible landscaping plans. And this year, it finally bloomed!

The serviceberry in my food forest finally has flowers!
The serviceberry in my food forest finally has flowers!

Now that I had a solid image of serviceberry flowers, I knew nothing I’d seen so far in the woods matched.

Later that same week … we visited the woods again, exploring spring edibles and other native flowers. When across the creek, I spotted tiny tufts of white on bare branches.

A serviceberry in the wild
A serviceberry in the wild

It was growing out of a sheer vertical hillside, meaning even knowing it was there, I would never be able to reach the serviceberry’s branches – or more to the point, its fruit later this year. I was able to get under the tree for a clearer view of the flowers, but they remained maddeningly out of reach.

The same serviceberry from below... no way I am reaching those branches, ever!
The same serviceberry from below… no way I am reaching those branches, ever!

But, at least I knew that they were, indeed, in the woods. The rest of the afternoon we clambered up hills and down crevices looking for a way to reach that one tree from above. We found something even better: additional trees, higher up the hillside, with branches within easy reach! I could clearly see the flowers, and they were an exact match to my own little serviceberry.

Another wild serviceberry
Another wild serviceberry

The trees will be harder to spot in late spring and early summer when the berries start to ripen, because the flowers will be gone, the leaves will cover the branches, and the rest of the forest will have come to life. Hopefully I will be able to find the serviceberries again! Luckily I know what the bark looks like now too – actually, a lot like pawpaws. Smooth, gray, somewhat mottled. Unlike the local pawpaws, whose trunks mostly straight though thin, the serviceberry trunks appear shaped more like redbuds, branching and crooked. That may be because at this higher elevation they experienced more trauma from wind.

Another serviceberry tree in the woods
Another serviceberry tree in the woods

Apparently the berries ripen over a period of several weeks, so there may not be enough between these shrubs to “do” anything with. Which of course means I would… what? Harvest the berries to start more trees for my own little food forest!

What wild food are you hunting lately?

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