In Ontario we are well into berry season. Mulberries are decorating our leafy streets, local strawberries are perfuming market stalls and shoring up shortcakes and cherries are just coming in. And there is one other amazing fruit tree that is no less prolific, flying under the radar in backyards and parks and growing like gangbusters in the wild, where they are prized by fauna like deer and rabbits; the serviceberry.
You may know the serviceberry by another name, depending on where you hail from. Its scientific name is Amelanchier, and it is actually related to the rose. In the west it is known as the Saskatoon Berry, and also goes by the names sarvis, sarvisberry, sugarplum, shadbush, wild plum, Indian pear, and my favourite, chuckley pear.
This bush-like tree (or tree-like bush) is native to North America and has upwards of twenty cultivars in every province and territory of Canada. Left unattended, it will grow like a tree up to just over ten metres in height, but if pruned regularly, it is more like a shrubbery. It is at home as a city shrub or a country cousin; it thrives in Toronto, and its sweet, plump berries are out in full force as we speak, attracting birds and being harvested by the likes of your truly.
Serviceberries are plump and sweet when ripe, with a taste similar to blueberries. An immature berry will be green, then as it ripens it darkens in colour, going from red to purple to almost black. When ripe, they are not sour, as one might expect, nor cloyingly sweet. Perhaps this is because they have not been cultivated and genetically manipulated to produce fruit with high sugar concentrations. The taste of the serviceberry, is light and juicy and refreshing, so it makes a great topping for cereal and ice cream and also makes delicious jams and pies. You can also make a refreshing juice from it, and where there is juice, there can be wine! The serviceberry also dehydrates beautifully, with its sugars becoming more concentrated, like a raisin or dried cranberry. Native Canadians have used serviceberries in pemmican, adding a healthy and sweet touch to the dried meat and fat staple food.
In the city, many gardeners choose to plant a serviceberry as a shrub, as it is an attractive plant that produces thousands of delicate white flowers in the spring, attracting birds, bees and butterflies. And in the fall, its green leaves turn a beautiful, deep orange and red, making it a beautiful shrub for all seasons. As it is native to this country, it is a hardy plant that can withstand our climatic extremes and still comes back every spring smelling like a rose.
If you or your kindly and generous neighbour have a serviceberry in your backyard, or know where one is growing, by all means, harvest these little gems, and eat them fresh, or make a jam or pie, or freeze them for the dead of winter. This is a truly remarkable plant, and, if one were to anthropomorphize it, has all the qualities of a good Canadian; hearty, unassuming and attractive, ready to help out and be pressed into service; and it is under our noses throughout our beautiful home and native land. Happy Canada Day!
Easy Serviceberry Jam
makes about 2 cups
1 ½ pounds service berries
2 cups sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
Put all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil, stirring often. The naturally occurring pectin in the berries combined with the sugar and lemon juice will help it set; no additional fruit pectin needed! When the jam has reached the setting point, about 220F, let it cool slightly and pour into sterilized mason jars.