Berry of Many Names

2020 November 22

OK, this time we have a plant that both has an edible fruit, and is clearly and unambiguously a native plant[1]. They grow in some profusion out behind our house, among many, many other places, and have a fairly tasty little purple berry. Here is one that I photographed on May 26, 2019, just as it was close to peak bloom.


The big question with these is, what to call them? For some reason, these small trees have many names, although they have but one nature [2]. I have heard them called Serviceberries, Sugarplums, Juneberries, and Saskatoons just among people locally, and Wikipedia also lists Shadbush, Shadwood, Shadblow, Sarvisberry, Wild-Plum, Chuckley-Pear, Chuckleberry, Bilberry, and Currant-Tree. There may well be others. Several of those names apparently have to do with the time of year that the tree blooms (May) or when the fruit is ripe (usually late June). This is a situation that cries out for using the scientific name. Our local species appears to be Amelanchier arborea, although the other shrubs and small trees in the genus Amelanchier are all pretty similar. We are also within the range of A. canadensis, A. humilis, and close to the range limit for A. alnifolia. There are also a number of hybrid varieties that can be purchased from horticultural suppliers, particularly A. lamarckii.

The blossoms are broadly similar to those of a lot of other fruit trees, except they tend to have long, somewhat spidery petals. The leaves come out at about the same time as the blossoms, and have a fairly characteristic coppery color as they are just opening up.




All sorts of bees and pollinating flies love these very much for the week or so that they bloom, and when they drop their petals it can be a bit like a late snowfall. Here’s Rosie shaking a bunch of them on herself and Sandy.

The fruits get to be about a quarter of an inch in diameter, and kind of resemble blueberries. They are red when they are unripe,


and turn a dark purple-blue when ripe. These were all photographed on August 12, 2019, which was actually later in the year than was typical. Usually they are all gone by early July.


They aren’t spectacularly attractive berries, but the taste is fair, kind of like a somewhat dry blueberry, or maybe an extremely small and not very juicy pear. The big problem with them is that they are tedious to pick. In addition to being kind of small, the berries are fairly sparse on the tree, so you pick one, and then have to move a fair distance to pick another.


So generally, when we pick them we just eat them immediately, rather than spending the time and effort to get together a large mass of them to make into jelly or pie or something like that.

[1] I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: “native species” doesn’t mean quite the same thing here in the UP of Michigan as it does in, say, Florida. The key point is that less than 10,000 years ago, the last ice age was still in the process of ending. This whole area was under about a mile of ice and dead, dead, dead. Once the ice had gone, the UP had to be recolonized by all the plants and animals from further south. This lead to a definite bias towards plants that could quickly spread long distances. This includes plants with windblown spores (ferns and horsetails), winged or parachute seeds (maples, pines, spruces, cottonwoods, willows, milkweed, goldenrod, cattails, etc.), fruits small enough to be eaten by birds and carried long distances (chokecherries, pin cherries, dogwood, and the trees we are discussing right now), or nuts that are of a convenient size for squirrels to carry off and bury for the winter, only to forget where they buried half of them (oak trees and their acorns). The environment is still diversifying, with periodic waves of new plants and insects moving in, explosively occupying a niche, and then gradually getting integrated into the community.

What this means is that a “native species” is basically one that got here on its own sometime before any naturalists appeared on the scene and started recording the species present. It doesn’t mean that they evolved here, because there hasn’t been time. They are predominantly plants and animals that were living and growing just beyond the greatest extent that the glaciers reached, and so were on the spot to move in when they melted away. “Non-native” or “invasive” species are those that have reached the area mostly in the last century, either on their own or with human help. I personally think that, for us, the distinction between the two classes is kind of arbitrary. The traits that made it possible for plants and animals to quickly colonize the UP after the glaciers melted, are the same traits that tend to make a species invasive if they get into other environments. It seems to me that almost everything in the UP is invasive to some extent, it is just that some of them are better at it than others.

[2] This is a fairly obscure reference to the protagonist of a series of fantasy stories written by John Brunner mostly in the late 1960s. He was constantly referred to as having “many names, but only one nature”, with the implication that he came into existence at a time when everything else was very fluid and did not have fixed characteristics.

2 Responses
  1. November 29, 2020

    Off topic: I think you’ll like this. I saw his YouTube channel and thought of you. Hope you’re having a great weekend!

  2. Jim permalink
    December 1, 2020

    We have a serviceberry out front of our house in Washtenaw county. Beautiful blooms and pretty fruit. Like you said, they are somewhat like lackluster blueberries. The birds love them though! About the only time I get to see cedar waxwings up close.

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