A tree that quietly makes its mark

My taste in plants tends toward the showy and colorful – those that demand the viewer’s attention. But sometimes I’m drawn to a quiet plant whose charms may not be so obvious at first glance.

One of my favorites is serviceberry – also known as Juneberry, shadbush, shadblow, Sarvis tree, downy serviceberry, Saskatoon serviceberry, and Utah serviceberry. Growing up in the Appalachians, I’d always thought of it as a tree, one that occurred naturally at the edge of woods.

So I was surprised a few years ago in talking with a gardening friend to discover that she considered it a shrub. I did a little research and discovered that among the various species and hybrids of the plant – some native, some from Asia – there were both shrubs and trees.

The shrubs tend to spread by suckers and form large colonies. The trees are small – 15 feet to 30 feet – and graceful. In early spring, pretty white flowers appear. They don’t last long, but are always a sign of renewal to me.

After the blooms come berries that mature to bluish-black, much-loved by native Americans, early settlers – and birds. I’ve heard they’re quite sweet and tasty (somewhat like a blueberry) and good for jam, but I don’t know from personal experience -- the birds have always stripped my trees before the berries ripened.

To add to this modest tree’s virtues, several species and numerous hybrids of it have brilliant fall color. ‘Princess Diana’ and ‘Autumn Brilliance’ are two I’ve admired.

But beyond the tree’s admirable qualities, I’ve always been drawn to it because of those unusual common names. “Shadbush” and “shadblow” are because it blooms at the same time the shad (fish) are spawning.

The name “serviceberry” came about because Appalachian mountain people used the plant for spring weddings and funerals, according to British garden historian Alice M. Coats (writing in “Garden Shrubs and Their History”).

I assume that “sarvis” is a sort of variation of “service,” but don’t know for sure.

To me, that collection of common names just adds another level of interest to what’s already a delightful plant.

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