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The iconic spring blooms of the shadbush herald warmer temperatures with a cloud of white petals. Relatively invisible the rest of the year, mid-late April is the time when these small trees (20-30 feet tall) wave their white flags in wet soils along the roadsides and river corridors. Beautiful and bright, shadbush blooms are five-petaled, placing them in the rose family along with apples and cherries. Also known as serviceberry, shadblow, saskatoon, and juneberry, these names refer to several very similar species in the Amelanchier genus spread throughout the east coast. Here in Vermont, I love to find the shadbush covered in blossoms before the leaves sprout as I’m driving along the backroads because that means the wild apples will be following suit very soon in an explosion of delicate petals.
Besides loving a little wet feet, the shadbush are connected to the rhythm of our rivers through their name and efflorescence. They bloom right around the time when the American shad, an Atlantic herring species, travels from the ocean up the rivers where it was born in order to spawn, hence the name “shadbush” or “shadblow”. Found off the east coast from Newfoundland to Florida, American shad spend most of their time in the salt water, and only return as adults to freshwater rivers. According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, American shad will travel farther upstream than any other herring species. Recently, this species has been found in Bellows Falls, Vermont, 277 miles up the Connecticut river. Two hundred and seventy-two miles is a pretty far journey for a fish to travel upstream, especially as they have to use fishways to circumvent three dams.
The largest herring species at around 15-24 inches in length, American shad were extirpated from the upper Connecticut river in the late 1700s when dams were built in Massachusetts. Before these blocked the passage of the shad, this species had been a central aspect of the food supply for Native Americans, and then European settlers. Now, while their numbers have dropped significantly, thanks to the installation of fishways this species is once again able to travel up the Connecticut River valley and her tributaries to follow their ancient spawning routes and, along with the shadbush, help signal the arrival of spring.
The connection between the shadbush and the spawning run they signal isn’t the only story behind this unique spring bloom. A second common name for the Amilanchier species, “serviceberry”, came from early European settlers. According to legend, burial services for people who had passed away during the winter were held in the spring when the serviceberry was blooming. Eventually, settlers began to look for the serviceberry blooms as a signal that the ground had thawed enough to dig graves (University of Vermont).
While these blossoms only last a couple of weeks, they set the stage for the wide spread of wild apples and other spring blooms. After the shadbush flowers fade and their oval leaves with slightly serrated edges unfurl, the flower buds will mature over the next couple of months to form dark blue fruits in late June or July, very sweet and nutritious if you can get to them. The trouble is that they are very popular among our local songbirds and wildlife, who eat the fruits and subsequently spread the seeds for the shadbush. While the seeds are a bit larger than those in, say, a blueberry, they are soft and easy to eat. If you’re able to gather enough of the fruits, I have heard they make an amazing pie.
Now you know what to look for, make sure you keep your eyes out for the white clouds of blossoms along the rivers and roadsides this spring. If you make note of the location, you can come back and check for fruits in June or July (double check with an ID guide before eating), and keep an eye out for their gentle orange/red fall color.
University of Vermont. “OMEKA@CTL: UVM Tree Profiles : Shadbush : Description.” Omeka RSS, Accessed 4 April 2023.
Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “American Shad.” CT.gov, Accessed 4 April 2023.
Maia Mencucci is an environmental science student at the Community College of Vermont. Living on a windswept hilltop farm in Walden, VT, she is an avid writer and reader, spending as much time as possible in the garden, or gaining inspiration from the beautiful outdoors.