The shad migration heralds in spring for many people in New England, as does the flowering of an understory tree known as shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis). Since these two events coincide, early settlers gave the tree its common name that forever associates it with the upstream spawning migration of the fish.
Shadbush is a species of serviceberry that grows across much of the eastern United States. There are dozens of species of serviceberry (Amelanchier) found in North America, Europe and Asia. Though most are shrubs, some are considered small trees. These members of the rose family can grow up to 30 feet tall, but our local shadbush usually reaches heights of only 20 feet. Its multi-stemmed trunk and its habit of sending out suckers allow the shrub to spread to form a thicket. Look for it in damp areas of the forest understory.
Racemes of snowy white flowers crowd the tips of the shadbush’s branches in early spring, just as its leaves are about to unfurl. These short-lived blossoms attract bees and other insects to pollinate them. Then, sadly, the five narrow petals of individual flowers will delicately drift to the ground as the blossoms fade. Small berry-like fruit will form in their place over the next couple of months, turning from red to a dark purple-black when ripe.
Another common name for shadbush is Juneberry, in celebration of the early summer ripening of its fruit. Edible and quite delicious, the fruits are used in jams and pies. They were also collected and dried by Native Americans and early European colonists to be added to pemmican, a dried meat and suet food staple. But humans are not the only creatures who love shadbush fruits. Numerous birds, such as the Gray Catbird; American Robin; Eastern Bluebird; Veery; Wood Thrush; Cedar Waxwing; Mourning Dove; Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers; Tufted Titmouse; Scarlet Tanager; Rose-breasted Grosbeak; and Wild Turkey appreciate these ripe fruits so early in the season.
This native tree is a great addition to a homeowner’s natural landscape plan. In addition to its early spring blossoms, the fruits are sure to attract many birds to your yard, often simultaneously. One homeowner in North Guilford witnessed six different species of birds crowding together in her shadbush to share in the bounty.