Saskatoon - Amelanchier alnifolia

saskatoon botany with brit

Saskatoon, a plant of many names, is also called Serviceberry and Juneberry. The Juneberry name throws me off a little - though the berries appear in June, they are not ripe until July or August. You would not want to eat the red berries in June but rather wait for them to turn a purplish black, sweetening in the late summer warmth. But I suppose July/Augustberry would make a rather awkward name. 

This shrub is in the Rose family, and the tasty berries are not really berries at all but pomes. Pomes have a core surrounded by edible fleshy tissue, like apples and pears. But saskatoons more closely resemble blueberries in appearance, hence the name. You can find them growing throughout most of Canada and the Western US. On the USDA distribution map, Arizona is one of the only western states left out, but it's neighbors California and New Mexico host populations of serviceberry. Saskatoons grow 3-15 ft tall and have upright racemes of white star-like flowers clustered in groups of 5-15 flowers. The leaves are oval to round and are usually toothed only on the upper margins, but it's good to not be too dogmatic on this point. I've seen saskatoon leaves that were almost entirely toothed and some that were almost entirely smooth with just a few discernible teeth on their tips. The roundness can be relied upon, the toothing is somewhat varied. Saskatoons bloom in May-June and the fruit ripens in July-August, hanging in generous clusters from the branches.

Saskatoons flourish in the wake of fire since they need the sunshine that a dense canopy blocks out. Indigenous people intentionally burned areas to encourage the production of this plant. The root crown and extensive system of rhizomes regenerate after the top is burned and fruit more readily than a plant that grew from seed.

Native peoples ate and still eat the fruit fresh and dried. Today the fruit is used in pies, jellies, syrups, and jams. Traditionally the berries were used to season soup and meat, and they were dried into cakes. 

The Shoshoni and Salish tribes shared meals of serviceberries with the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Lewis thought quite highly of this food, writing in his journal
"we feasted sumptuously on our wild fruits, particularly the yellow currant and the deep purple serviceberries, which I found to be excellent. The serviceberry grows on a small bush and differs from ours only in colour size and superior excellence of its flavour." 

Saskatoons were used for a variety of medicinal purposes as well. The branches were boiled to make a tea for treating colds, the bark was boiled for stomach problems, and the bark and twigs provided a medicine for recovery after childbirth.

To further diversify its uses, the "Snohomish use the wood of this plant for discs for slahalem, one of the local gambling games. These discs are about the diameter of a silver dollar, and twice as thick" according to Erna Gunther in her book Ethnobotany of Western Washington.

Wildlife agree with humans on the palatability of this plant. Squirrels, songbirds, deer, beaver, black bear, rabbits, marmots, and moose eat the berries and foliage. Now if you were a deer it would be good to avoid having this plant constitute more than about 35% of your diet since the young twigs contain cyanogenic glycosides and overconsumption could potentially be fatal. But I've never heard of a deer that was so addicted to juvenile saskatoon that it died.