Serviceberry trees are blooming all over the Appalachians. Although other trees like birch and alder may flower earlier, the first showy flowers are serviceberries, coming a couple of weeks before the dogwood. The slopes of all the forested hollows in eastern Kentucky are dotted with these elegant, slender trees.
In the old days, before good roads and easy transportation, serviceberry flowers played an important cultural role. You see, when a person died in the winter, it wasn’t possible to hold a service and a burial. The ground was frozen solid, and a proper grave could not be dug. With deep snow and poor roads, it was difficult to travel from one holler to another.
Serviceberry blossoms provided the signal, more reliable than the calendar. The haze of white flowers in the hollows meant that the ground was thawing and it was time to go to funerals. The body in its yellow-poplar or chestnut casket, would be stored in the barn until the serviceberries bloomed.
That is, of course, how this tree got its name. It has lots of other names – the number of names of a tree is, I think, a measure of its usefulness. Sarvis is a variant of Serviceberry. Shad, or shadbush or shadblow was another set of names having to do with telling time – when the shadbush blooms, the shad are running in the creeks and it is time to go fishing. Pieberry or pietree, which I have only seen a few times, is an indication of something later in the calendar – the berries are delicious in jams or pies if you can beat the birds to the fruit. I have three serviceberries in front of my house, but if I wait long enough for the fruits to fully ripen, the birds get them first.
There are several species of serviceberry. Our common tree-sized serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea, common or downy serviceberry and Amelanchier laevis, Alleghany serviceberry, are difficult to tell apart except when the leaves are just breaking bud. Then, the leaves are downy, as the name suggests. There are several other less common species, but by far the most popular ornamental is the shrubby Canada serviceberry, Amelanchier canadensis. Although not native to Kentucky, it is abundant in states to the east.