How to Identify Serviceberries - Foraging for Edible Wild Berries
Serviceberries might just be my single most favorite wild food on planet Earth.
You might also know them as juneberries or saskatoons if you’ve encountered them before, or possibly shadberries from the shadbush. This name refers to the fact that the flowers are in bloom when the shad run in New England streams.
There’s folklore floating through the ether linking the name serviceberry to either church services or funeral services, but in fact it alludes to the genus’s resemblance to the Sorbus genus, its European cousin in the Rosaceae family which contains rowan, mountain-ash, service tree, and more.
In the Ohio River Valley, juneberries actually begin to ripen towards the tail end of May, and will stick around through the mid-June for a solid few weeks of fruit. They may show up a little earlier or later for you, depending on the climate in your region. You might not even taste a ripe juneberry until well into July.
The Amelanchier genus contains many species of serviceberries that can be difficult to differentiate between, and which can grow as either trees or shrubs. All are edible, and every one I’ve ever come across tasted better than the last, but I’m told they’re not always delicious so definitely taste a few before harvesting heavily.
What do they taste like? To my palette, the flavor lands about halfway between a blueberry and a grape, though sweeter and more tender than either of those, and with a slightly nutty, almond-like aftertaste due to the tiny edible seeds inside.
Serviceberries are native to North America and were a staple food of great importance to many indigenous peoples. Various species are spread all across the continent, though in the wild they tend to be most common in more Northern and high-altitude areas.
Traditionally they are often used to make pemmican, a dried mash of lean meat, berries, and animal fat that was historically a common staple food among native peoples. The meat would be whatever’s on hand—bison, elk, deer—and the berries would be whatever’s in season—serviceberries, blueberries, cranberries. When properly prepared, pemmican can keep in storage for up to 10 years!
Today, serviceberries are very commonly grown as ornamentals in urban and suburban landscaping, and yet I would bet that the vast majority of people who pass by them on a regular basis have no clue that they’re edible, and delicious to boot. What a strange world we live in!
Serviceberries are very easy to identify. There aren’t really any lookalikes that I’m aware of, and once you’ve gotten to know a few you’ll be able to spot them immediately.
The trees have distinctly smooth gray bark and produce showy, star-shaped white flowers with five slender petals in the spring — very typical of the Rosaceae family. The fruits look more like a blueberry than anything else, though usually slightly larger. They start green but quickly turn a bright shade of reddish-pink, and gradually ripen to a deep, dark purple. This is when they’re at their sweetest and most tender, but my partner Brooke actually prefers the slightly-less-than-ripe berries that still have some red to them because they’re a bit tart at this stage.
What can you do with them? Well, if you manage to walk away from a tree with more berries than you stuffed in your face, congratulations for having such strong willpower! Serviceberries make a great substitute anywhere you would use blueberries: raw, in salads and smoothies, as a topping for breakfasts and desserts, and preserved as jam, jelly, or wine – or all of the above. I freeze some, dehydrate some, and use the rest for eating fresh or homebrewing.
Diving into the wonderful world of wild foods can be intimidating, especially if you don't have much experience working with plants.
That's why I wrote Introduction to Foraging: A Beginner's Guide to Gathering Wild Foods with Confidence - available now.
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Introduction to Foraging goes into much greater detail on chickweed, garlic mustard, bittercress, and field garlic, as well as several other wild plants that are very common and very easy to identify.
To learn everything you need to know to begin foraging safely, sustainably, and confidently, check out my book here. Happy hunting!