As I write this, the lilacs are just about to bloom and the dogwoods are in full flower. So are the apple-family trees, which include crabapples, pears and quinces. (I wouldn’t know a quince tree if I saw it; I can only distinguish the others because last year that tree had pears on it.) Blueberry flowers are going crazy, blackberries not yet, and the young stems of sassafras are crunchily gelatinous and gooey. But the shadberries are a forager’s dream, because they signal two food sources at once.
Shad trees are covered with snowy, five-petaled white blossoms with tarnished-copper leaves. (There are several nice specimens in front of the tribal housing in Aquinnah, and they’re everywhere along Island roads.) When the shad fruit ripens in July and August, the small dark berries remind me of a cross between a cherry and a blueberry, borne in bunches on long stems and with a flavor reminiscent not of cherries but of Wild Cherry Lifesavers. Though I’ll certainly stuff myself by the roadside, shadberries are usually cork-dry and not worth taking home. They’re like fern fiddleheads or green tomatoes: edible, loved by some and surely nutritious, but nothing to shout about.
But if the berries aren’t worth much, the flowers are. Not just because they’re pretty, but because their appearance means the arrival of much better food. The trees are named for shad, which are herring that act like salmon: when the shad bloomed, the streams were once filled with writhing shad fighting their way upstream to spawn. There aren’t many Atlantic shad around anymore, but we’ve done better preserving striped bass and bluefish, without which no Vineyard summer would be complete. Every year, as the returning sun triggers the bloom of the shadbush, it warms the water and attracts the summer visitors from their wintering grounds further south. When the shad blooms, spring is here, and fishermen across the Island know it is time for the first stripers to arrive. The bluefish will follow shortly.
But don’t watch the fish market to see when these delicacies start to arrive. Commercial striped bass fishermen can’t start until the middle of July; bluefish will be available sooner but not for another month or so. For now the only way you can get fresh striped bass or bluefish is either to catch it yourself or know someone who does. You can buy blackberries or apples or almost any wild produce, but springtime striped bass and bluefish require the company of a forager. So do shadberries, but I think that’s mostly because no one wants them.
— Maia Smith