Sunday, January 17, 2010

Homage to Amelanchier

(A flowering Juneberry in May at DrTom's.)

One of the required trees to learn in my field biology course was a relatively insignificant species (from a timber perspective) called Juneberry, or shadbush, or serviceberry. It has several common names, but I am referring to the genus Amelanchier. The common species in our area is Amelanchier laevis, or smooth Juneberry. This shrub or small tree is in the rose family, and rarely gets more than 10 meters high. It flowers in May when the American shad (a fish) used to run up the eastern rivers, and it bears ripe fruit in June (thus, Juneberry).

The tree was always difficult for students to identify in autumn when it contained neither flowers nor fruits, so I made a big deal of how much I loved this tree. During the semester, I often heard students say in discussing the trees they were required to know from their list, “you know the one, Gavin’s favorite tree.” I thought that by exaggerating my love for this species that they would more easily remember what I wanted them to know. But I really do love this species; it is one of my favorite trees in the eastern deciduous forest. But why?

First of all, everything about Amelanchier is attractive. The gray bark with weaves of green running through it, the finely serrated leaves, the abundant white blossoms, and the purple fruits that resemble blueberries offer much. But many open-grown specimens have a growth form that reminds me of a small tree you might see in a Japanese garden, almost like a giant bonsai tree. Based on my observations, they are slow growing, adding only a few centimeters of new growth per year. Although I have never worked the wood, it is supposedly hard and durable and was used in former times as tool handles.

Second, starting about mid-June, the fruits ripen and the show begins. So, my evening ritual (you know, scotch, cigar, binoculars, and folding chair) is often spent sitting several meters away from my favorite Juneberry. Every fruit-eating bird in the area is attracted to this offering, which, of course, is how the tree disperses its seeds. Birds swallow the fruits while they are in the tree and defecate the seeds elsewhere several minutes later. American robins, gray catbirds, veerys, and cedar waxwings are the most common visitors on my property. Lat year on June 14 the fruits were not yet ripe, but the waxwings started feeding on those fruits a couple of days before. (Are those seeds ready to be dispersed yet? Are they yet viable?) This is really curious to me and it deserves further investigation. In a few days, the branches of the tree will be moving constantly with the shifting of bird bodies intent in harvesting as much as they can as rapidly as possible.

The most interesting visitor is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the fruit-eating woodpecker with a sweet tooth. Remember that this is the species that drills small holes in a neat horizontal line in certain species of trees (like red maples), and then visits these holes later to lick up the sweet sap that oozes from them; it may also feed on insects that are attracted to the sap. For several years, I have had a pair of sapsuckers that visit my Juneberry trees as long as there is ripe fruit available.

Gray squirrels and eastern chipmunks also love these fruits and, although I have yet to witness this, I am betting that deer mice in the genus Peromyscus climb these trees at night to eat the fruits. George Petrides writes that foxes, skunks, raccoons, and black bears also relish Juneberry fruits. They are also quite edible by humans.

I have described my hobby of thinning my woodlot for various purposes. One of the objectives has been to release this sun-loving tree to fuller sunlight along my driveway so that it flowers more profusely. There are now 14-15 specimens lining my long driveway, which provide a beautiful show of flowers in May. I usually proclaim that spring has really arrived when Juneberry is in flower. Oh, I did not mention this, but an old etymology of the third common name, serviceberry, is consistent with my proclamation of spring arrival. Pioneers are said to have used the flowering of Juneberry to know that the ground had thawed sufficiently to bury those who had died during the winter—funeral services could be held at that time.

My enthusiasm for Amelanchier has not changed over the years. About all that has changed is what used to be called “Gavin’s favorite tree” is now referred to as “DrTom’s favorite tree.” Same tree, different name.