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The sarvisberry tree ~ a harbinger of spring

“WHEN YOU SEE the white blooms of the Sarvis trees, you know that spring is really here.” Jelly made from sarvisberries is delicious, tasting quite a lot like apple jelly, if a bit more tart. L.D. Bennett photos

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

After waiting for it for so long, it seems like when spring finally comes to our mountains, it comes overnight. 

You can watch the trees getting ready to bud for weeks and weeks, but if you blink, you’ve missed it. 

One morning, there they are – all in bloom.

It’s hard to know which of our flowering trees is the most beautiful – the sweet, delicate dogwoods, the pastels of the flowering crabapples, the creamy white of our ornamental pear trees and, of course, many would say that the electric pinky-purple of the redbuds take the cake.

But, maybe because my mom loved them so much, I’m partial to the shy, white lace of the serviceberry trees peeking out from their gray, woodsy camouflage.

Sarvis trees were one of my mother’s particularly favorite trees. I’m not sure why, maybe because they were always the first trees in our woods to announce spring. 

“When you see the white blooms of the Sarvis trees, you know that spring is really here,” she’d say. 

Mind you, I use the forsythia in my yard as my official barometer of the season – it seems to know to bloom out about two or three weeks before our last snow.

But the Sarvis trees will always be a sweet reminder of my mom.

Serviceberry trees, or as folks around these parts call them Sarvisberry trees, are known by many names: Juneberry, Shadbush, Saskatoon Serviceberry, Currant Tree or Pigeon Berry.

Serviceberry belongs to the genus Amelanchier. 

Oddly enough, it’s a distant cousin of the rose family – along with chokeberry, hawthorn, apple, plum, pear and mountain ash trees. I know. Seems odd. But there it is.

There are several dozen species of native serviceberry in North America, and Virginia was home to three of them: Amelanchier arborae (the downy serviceberry), A. Canadensis (the shadblow serviceberry) and A. Laevis (the Allegheny- or “smooth” serviceberry). 

When the springtime thaw made it possible for traveling preachers to finally reach distant communities, there were many church services and baptisms, funerals and weddings. 

As one of the first wild trees to bloom in the spring, Serviceberry trees provided flowers for pioneer women gathering blossoms for spring church services. 

Some say the name “Sarvis” originated with the Old English pronunciation for the word “service.”

They believe that the American serviceberry was named by English settlers because its fruit reminded them of the service fruit– the tiny fruit of a wild European pear tree with the Latin name, “Sorbus.”  

Whatever you call them, the sarvisberry offers some of the first early summer berries, usually in June. 

The tasty reddish-purple berries are a welcome treat to robins, bluebirds and other fruit-eating birds, giving rise to another common name, the Juneberry. 

Sarvis berries were used by Native Americans, who pounded them into meat to make pemmican- and even now, they are collected by those who appreciate them for jams, cobblers and wines.

The blossoms were a marker for the Native Americans and settlers as to where to find the berries that would provide a source of early summer protein and delicious food.

The old people will tell you that once upon a time, sarvisberries were boiled into a tonic for the treatment of the “yellow jaunders,” or jaundice.

Even today, people who can beat the birds to them and gather enough of the little berries, use them like any berry – eating them raw or baking them in pancakes, muffins and pies. 

Jelly made from sarvis-berries is delicious, tasting quite a lot like apple jelly, if a bit more tart.

You can dehydrate them and use them like raisins or craisins.

But the dainty sarvis tree seems to always be camouflaged at the edge of the woods when not in bloom. 

Mark your sarvis trees in the spring and check for their berries early in June. 

Pick the nutritious berries as soon as they are ripe red, for the birds know where they are too, and even if they didn’t, the ripe berries don’t stay on the tree much more than a week or two.

Flowering at the edge of our gray winter-weary woods and fruiting on the edge of summer, the Sarvis tree is a welcome sign of spring and a sweet reminder of our heritage.

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