Winter is dead and there’s no going back! We can be sure of the new season’s arrival by the sign of the shadbush.
Just before the leaves of most of our Island trees and bushes pop, there is a plant whose delicate white flowers go off like a flashbulb. A quick bloom, the blossoms of the shadbush are gone in what seems like little more than a few moments.
But their arrival heralds more than just the change of the season: there is something fishy going on.
The shadbush, named after the fish of the same name, sends an update to the entire world (at least our world) when the fish are returning. Shad, or river herring, are anadromous fish that spend most of their lives in salt water yet must swim upstream to fresh water to spawn. These bushes are usually blooming at the same time that the fish are arriving.
In addition to the dying of the winter season, the shadbush has another connection to the world of the dead. Before there were massive machines to dig holes in the frozen ground, people naturally dug graves by hand. The frozen earth was not conducive to burial, so in earlier times the dead and their grieving families waited until spring for burying those who perished during the winter.
The flowering of the shadbush signaled that it was time to put the dead into the ground, it having thawed enough to make digging a grave possible. Perhaps that is also why the shadbush is called serviceberry, for it bloomed at a time when there were many funeral services.
Other sources credit the name serviceberry with another origin. In Appalachia, the blooming of the shadbush occurred when the roads through the mountains finally became passable or “serviceable.” Preachers were able to reach isolated towns and offer services for those who passed over the winter, and to herald the Easter season. This year the shadbush came too late for that, though!
Remember these shrubs because in another month they will yield delicious fruits. Shadbush is also called juneberry because of that timing. The berries have been a food source for quite a while. They were dried and used in pemmican, the Native American version of a protein bar, and could be steeped along with the leaves to make a tempting tea.
Other aliases, including sugar pear, sugar plum, wild plum, Indian pear and chuckley pear, allude to this favorite fruit. However, you could easily miss out on a taste, since the birds seem to find them first.
A familiar fungus could also leave you fruitless. Cedar apple rust, known to affect cedar trees and apple trees, can also affect shadbush. Its effects include brownish orange spots on the leaves and, even worse, it can distort the fruit, leaving horn-like protrusion on the berries. It is not surprising that it distresses shadbush, which is in the rose family, a family that also includes apples, cherries and hawthorn.
By the time you read this column, I’m sorry to say that you will have likely missed the blooming of the shad. It was gone as quickly as it was here; but you can continue to appreciate the shad, the bush, the fruit and the spring that it heralded — not a bad compensation at all.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown. Her first book, Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature, is due out in June.