Vail Daily column: Serviceberries are a sweet and enduring local resource
August 16, 2014
During the summer months in the Vail area, our hillsides and valleys burst into familiar color with a range of native plants. Many of these plants are not only beautiful, they are often edible and have medicinal uses. One plant in particular, the serviceberry, is a favorite among our local human and wildlife communities.
Amelanchier alnifolia is a member of the rose family, rosaceae. This fruit-bearing perennial shrub goes by a number of common names across the country including Saskatoon, June berry and shadbush. Locally, it is most often referred to as the serviceberry. Serviceberry shrubs adapt to a variety of environments — they can be found in the diverse, sunny understory of an aspen grove, in natural or disturbed meadows or alongside one of the many creeks and rivers that form our valley’s riparian zones. Serviceberry leaves are oval-shaped, smooth at the bottom and toothed toward the top of the leaf. In late spring and early summer, the serviceberry plant produces beautiful white blooms; by late summer, the blooms give way to sweet, dark red to purple berries.
Many Native American groups across North America have traditions of using serviceberries. The serviceberry plant was a particularly important resource for the Ute, the original “locals” in the Vail Valley. The Ute are a semi-nomadic tribe that migrated seasonally to the Vail area in the summer from their more arid winter homes in western Colorado and Utah. Archaeologists agree that the Ute were established in Colorado by 1400 AD, but there is uncertainty surrounding when they began migrating to the area. The Ute referred to the Gore Range and the Vail area as the “Shining Mountains” and returned year after year to take advantage of the area’s cool weather and abundant resources in the summer months. The Ute employed a hunting and gathering strategy to complement their nomadic lifestyle. Ethnobotanical studies have shown that, in addition to harvesting and eating fresh serviceberries, the Ute also dried the berries and stored them for the winter months. They also used serviceberry branches to make various tools like arrows and snowshoes!
In addition to providing a resource for our local human communities past and present, the serviceberry is also an important resource for wildlife. Ungulates such as deer, elk, and bighorn sheep browse on the shrub’s twigs and leaves, while many small mammals and birds find shelter amongst its thick branches. Black bears in particular are fond of the juicy berry that the plant produces midsummer. Starting midsummer and continuing into the fall, black bears undergo what is referred to as hyperphagia, where they consume up to 20,000 calories a day in order to build up fat stores before their winter hibernation. It is not unusual to see a satisfied black bear emerge from the bushes after feast.
If you get to a ripe serviceberry bush before our black bear neighbors do, then you can enjoy them as well! Serviceberries can be eaten straight off the plant or baked into pies and made into preserves. However, when considering eating any wild plant, it is important to know that you have identified your plant correctly. Consult a field guide to make sure you are harvesting berries that are safe for human consumption — there are poisonous berries in the Vail area as well. Consider serviceberries as a sweet trail snack for your late summer hike!
Tory Dille is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. When Tory is not out looking for edible and medicinal plants, she enjoys hiking and playing in the river.