At Your Service

illustrations by Sharon Floro

Juicy, beguiling, and wildly abundant, serviceberries could be your new favorite fruit.

Try this,” I said, stopping to pluck a perfectly maroon, marble-sized berry from a tree a friend and I roller skated past on a bike path. I greedily shoved a few berries in my mouth before offering her one—nothing entices a dehydrated skater more than fresh fruit—and she eyed the berry I proffered with skepticism.

“Is this safe to eat?” she asked.

“Trust me, if these were dangerous, I’d be dead by now,” I said.

Serviceberries are not only safe, but utterly enchanting. They taste of blueberries and concord grapes infused with marzipan. Humans have eaten serviceberries in North America for millennia, but my reassurances were lost upon my friend, who skated forth without giving them any more thought.

What humans do with serviceberries now is plant them as ornamental trees in urban environments. You have likely crossed paths with dozens and never known it. Field guides mention the tree’s fruit secondarily, after rattling off the medicinal applications of roots, bark, and stems.

Medicine is well and good, but fruit is fun. For all the talk of their spray of white blossoms in the spring or gold-to-red foliage come fall, the true treasures of these trees are their berries.

By Any Other Name

There’s a slight branding issue with serviceberries. Like members of the Wu-Tang Clan, serviceberries (Amelanchier arborea) go by many names. Species of the tall native shrubs (or small trees) grow across America and Canada; depending on where you are, their handles include sarvis or sarvis tree, Juneberries, shadberries, and shadbush. In England, they’re known as snowy mespilus.

In Canada, they go by Saskatoonberries. The largest city in Saskatchewan was named after them (‘saskatoon’ is an anglicized version of the Cree word for the fruits). Many indigenous North Americans used serviceberries in pemmican, a mixture of fat and pulverized dried berries and meat.

Why go with serviceberry? A charming and persistent piece of folklore maintains the April-blooming trees signaled the arrival of weather warm enough to thaw the ground, allowing for burials of the winter’s dead (the service in question here would be a funeral). This is likely not true; another possibility is early European settlers found it similar to the genus Sorbus, calling it “sarvis,” then “service.” Members of Sorbus include mountain ash, which, incidentally, looks nothing like a serviceberry, so this theory is also suspect.

A Forageable Fruit

Like apples and pears, serviceberries are in the rose family. Botanically speaking, its fruit is not a berry but a pome, like apples and pears. Pomes have cores, but the core of a serviceberry is soft enough that it’s unnoticeable. Texturally, serviceberries are thin-skinned and juicy inside, like blueberries with bigger seeds.

About those seeds. They resemble downsized apple seeds, and as much as I like raw serviceberries, I tend to spit the seeds into my napkin if I’ve sprinkled a handful over my muesli. A short stint of heat softens the seeds, and I’ve noticed the rigidity of the seeds transformed by a spell on a griddle—for a forager’s celebratory breakfast, drop serviceberries onto rounds of sizzling pancake batter. Make jam or preserves. Bake them in quick breads, muffins, or scones. Try pairing them with rhubarb.

Of course, you need to collect enough serviceberries to have a quantity for cooking in the first place. Nature must cooperate. On the fruit front, serviceberries have good and bad years. In 2018, the trees in my neighborhood went gangbusters, and I daily raided laden trees on the nearby college campus, netting about 10 pounds.

The two years prior? A scant handful. A bud-nipping spring freeze can wreak havoc on serviceberry output.

I have spotted serviceberry trees growing wild in the woods, looking scrawny in comparison to their cultivated counterparts. Left to their own devices, serviceberries are understory trees, and in such shade their berries don’t get very plump or sweet.

The best serviceberries grow on the ornamental trees, meaning they get full sun and are more likely to produce big, juicy berries. Look for the berries in late May, ripening into mid-June. In early summer, you’ll see me loading my backpack with empty yogurt tubs and biking to prime trees around town. The darker the berries, the better they taste. Fill up a few tubs and move to the next tree. I never clear one out, leaving a good number of berries for the next hungry animal.

The Ideal Landscaping Plant

John Hemmerle, a serviceberry fan, is founder and designer of Our Land Organics, a Cincinnati ecological landscape design/build company. He first tasted the berries years ago: “A friend brought a bunch home from a landscape around a parking lot. Apparently no one else was in on the secret that they were parking in a serviceberry patch. I had a couple and wondered, why have I never had these before?”

Hemmerle describes their flavor as, “blueberry with a hint of almond and amaretto. Super tasty. The nutrient profile of serviceberries is an added bonus.” They’re packed with antioxidants, plus are surprisingly high in iron and calcium. With some marketing muscle, serviceberries could elbow pomegranates and acai out of the superfood spotlight.

Commercially, people seem to be less interested in what they can do for our bodies than what they can do for our landscapes. Why? “Serviceberries first and foremost are a really beautiful shrub,” Hemmerle says. “They have an open, airy form if pruned annually. This allows for opportunities to create space, but not necessarily be walled in.

“They are also really versatile in terms of placement in the yard,” he continues. “They can handle full sun and thrive in partial shade and can serve as a stand-alone specimen or be massed. Serviceberries are pretty tough. I rarely see them have issues. They are a true low-maintenance shrub.”

If you love watching backyard birds, grow serviceberries. If you love eating serviceberries, you’ll be racing the birds to get them—or the squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. Maybe even me, too, though unlike other mammals, I inquire with the homeowner before a raiding in earnest (no one has ever denied my request, by the way). Cincinnati Permaculture Institute’s Growing Value Edible Plant Nursery sells several varieties of serviceberries, and they can offer helpful advice about selecting and planting cultivars.

Imagine a world where blueberry shrubs dotted lawns and boulevard medians, but no one paid the berries themselves much mind. That’s where we are with serviceberries, but the tides could turn. “When clients realize how delicious they are, they are stoked,” Hemmerle says. In Canada, Saskatoonberries are grown as a commercial crop. It makes sense—they hold up well under refrigeration, offer vitamins and minerals up the wazoo, and (most important) are fantastic in pie.

I wonder if our national lexicon of common fruits—apples, bananas, strawberries—creates a prejudice against the unfamiliar, even if it grows in plain sight next door. The first few weeks of June, the array of serviceberries on branches ranges in hue from eye-popping fuchsia to dark purple. They seem too fantastic to eat, but that’s only because we aren’t in the habit of eating any. Why aren’t we all going gaga over serviceberries? Why do my friends question my sanity when I devour them from assorted trees along sidewalks and paths?

The berries themselves don’t care. They just grow, and their puzzling obscurity only means more serviceberries for me—and, hopefully, for you, too. 

Sara is a chef and writer. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, her writing has appeared in Saveur, Best Food Writing 2014, and two Full Grown People anthologies. Her cookbook Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State is forthcoming from Farcountry Press. She lives in Marietta.