Plant gives much and expects little in return, says columnist.
In the Mi’kmaw language, the August moon time is Kisikewiku’s (berry ripening time), a time when the harvest of many types of berries dominates activities in the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere.
August meals for both fourlegged and two-legged species feature freshly harvested blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. Also ripening during the August moon is the serviceberry, which many of us have always known as Indian Pear.
Serviceberries, of which there are about 20 species, are found on shrubby-trees in northern temperate areas. In the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere there are six species and many crossspecies hybrids but the most common ones are known as the Allegheny and the Canadian serviceberry. A closely related species in the western provinces is the famous Saskatoon serviceberry for which that city was named.
In our biosphere in August, the shrubby serviceberry tree is virtually unnoticeable in contrast to its prominence in May with masses of white blooms amid the drab forests awakening from winter’s slumber.
In addition to brightening up the early spring landscape, these lonely flowers may mean the difference between life and death for early emerging insects in May. Serviceberries are important plants for the larvae of butterflies such as eastern tiger swallowtail, viceroy, admirals and others.
You might think that serviceberry trees were named because of all the services they provide to the other biosphere inhabitants. Actually, serviceberry is derived from ‘sarvisberry’ which describes a European tree with similarlooking fruit.
Although the serviceberry is not a popular food for people anymore, traditionally it was an important diet component for the Mi’kmaq, the first peoples of the biosphere.
The purple berries are a hidden gem, with a taste similar to blueberries. So, one of the services that this tree provides is the delivery of little parcels of food that are packed with antioxidants and micronutrients. These berries would have been a significant nutritional boost in the times before grocery stores.
In more northerly latitudes the serviceberry is one of the components of pemmican, adding to the flavour and nutritional value of the seal fat. In our biosphere, the serviceberry certainly contributes significantly to the health and well-being of many of the biosphere’s birds and other wild residents.
In the Mi’kmaw language, the serviceberry tree is Alo’qumwejit. In the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere it is also called shadbush. This name underlines the second significant service that this plant provides.
The show of flowers on the tree in May is a signal that schools of the fish called ‘shad’ are moving from oceanic waters into the estuaries and rivers of Eastern Canada such as the Bras d’Or estuary and its tributaries.
It is not that the fish see the flowers as a signal to spawn. It is just that the warming temperatures and lengthening days of spring stimulate flowering in the shadbush at about the same time that the fish’s reproductive urges signal them to swim upstream to mate.
In nature, everything is connected. So, the maturing offspring of those spring visitors should be ready to leave their freshwater nurseries at about the time that we are picking the ripe purple berries of the shadbush in August.
The third service provided by the serviceberry is as a medicine. Steeped root bark has been used to treat diarrhea by most Indigenous Peoples inhabiting areas where the shrub is found. It has also been used for treating children for worms and as a laxative and cough medicine among a host of other applications.
The tough wood of young serviceberry stems and branches have been used in basketry, rope, arrow and toolmaking, leading to the fourth significant service.
I am sure the plant provides many more services to the other residents of our biosphere. This one plant gives so
“The show of flowers on the tree in May is a signal that schools of the fish called ‘shad’ are moving from oceanic waters into the estuaries and rivers of Eastern Canada.”
much and expects so little in return.
You are likely to come across a clump of serviceberry trees near wetlands at low elevations in the biosphere. Make
sure that you say a little ‘thank you for your service’ when you pass one.
Ripening fruit of the shadbush.
The shadbush flowering in spring.
An American shad averages 14-29 inches.