If you blinked last week, then you might have missed it. The shadbush bloomed.
Shadbush is a quick-change artist: its flowers are here one moment and gone the next. Before leaf-out of most other woodland species, the slender five-petaled white flowers of the shadbush appear and fade away quickly.
If you missed the flowers, don’t despair; identification of this small tree or large bush is still possible. Look for the oblong-toothed leaves, edged in red, or take note of the bark with its telltale vertical stripes.
Keep the details of the plant in the forefront of your floral memory, because, before long, it will yield edible berries. Shadbush is also called juneberry, serviceberry, and Indian pear. Of course there are stories behind all of these aliases.
Why serviceberry? The bloom of this early spring flower came at the same time as the return of circuit preachers, who arrived at settlements at this time of year to resume church services. Also, the flower’s appearance sometimes occurred near Easter services. On the morbid, but practical side, when this plant flowered funeral services could finally be held for the winter dead, due to the fact that it coincided with the softening up of the ground, when burial was possible.
Why juneberry, then? June is the month that the berries appear.
The most common name for this land plant — shadbush — connects it to a watery associate. Shad are anadromous fish that migrate from salt water to fresh water in the spring to spawn. It is at this time of year, in the spring, that shad run, or swim upriver.
The berries of the shadbush are edible and have historically been used in pies, muffins, jelly and wine. They were also a part of the earliest trail mix. Native Americans combined these berries with dried meat and nuts, calling the mixture pemmican, and ate it for energy on the road.
You must be observant and fast if you want to get the berries, considering the competition. Bluebirds, orioles, cardinals, towhees, cedar waxwings, robins, bluebirds and other avian rivals have a bird’s eye view of the ripening berries, and will use their winged advantage to get to them before you.
Many herbalists stayed one step ahead of the birds, collecting and using these berries medicinally. They were recommended for strength after childbirth and for liver troubles. In an interesting contradiction, the berries were noted to have laxative qualities, yet, conversely, the plant’s roots were used to treat diarrhea. One-stop shopping, no pharmacy necessary.
On the Vineyard, four varieties of this plant have been found historically: thicket shadbush, smooth shadbush, running shadbush and Nantucket shadbush. The last variety is a rare plant, with the two largest populations found on Nantucket and the Vineyard and small populations noted in Maine, New York, Maryland, and Virginia.
By the time you read this, chances are likely that you may have missed the shadbush blooms. It is only the quick and nimble that catch this once-a-year floral feast for the eyes and sweet temptation for the tongue.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.