Sunday, June 24, 2012

Foraging: Identifying Juneberries (Serviceberries & Shadbush)

Identification difficulty: Beginner

This year, the sheer abundance of berries made them impossible to ignore. For the past 3+ weeks, I have made berry pancakes, berry drinks, various breads and muffins, added berries to frozen banana "ice cream" and even made a sweet and spicy sauce with mulberries and chipotle for chicken. (I'll get around to a mulberry post soon, I promise!)

The Juneberry is a variety of Amelanchier which happens to ripen in June. Other varieties will ripen throughout the summer, and might be known by other names, such as Serviceberry or Shadbush. I have not encountered these other varieties, but then, I was never really looking either. Juneberries are frequently planted in urban and suburban areas, since they have very attractive blossoms in the spring. They are also abundant in the wild.

Amelanchier bloom in April, which has lead to the name
"Shadbush" (blooms when the shad run).

The fruit here, in late May,
is about a week from being ripe
The different leaves have different shapes, oval or elongated oval (called lanceolate), but they will always have serrated (toothed) edges. (Though the serrations on these are very fine).

The fruit is purple-black when ripe, red when unripe, and has a crown. A crown is the "fringe" on the ends of the berries.

I would feel pretty confident on the safety of ID-ing Juneberries, since Steve Brill says that no North American fruit with a crown is poisonous.Good to know!

The bark of tree or shrub (the plant can appear as either) is silvery grey or blackish, and it apparently frequently features vertical striations, but that wasn't the case with my trees.

Birds also like to leave the remains of
consumed Juneberries on my bistro table.
Juneberries can be spotted from the road by large patches of purple on the ground. They are beloved of birds, so beware if you park your car near the trees. Woodchucks and other small animals will frequently run into the road to gather fallen berries, so keep a lookout for them.

Though I frequently see a lot of them, this year Juneberries seemed particularly abundant. I harvested a quart in about 10 minutes, from only the lowest branches of very small trees. The 5 trees on my street produced several gallons of fruit over the course of 9 days or so, with total harvesting time under 2 hours.

When they are very ripe, they will want to fall of their own accord, and you might miss quite a few if you don't lay out some sort of cloth under the branches. With the abundance of this year, I didn't particularly care, but I probably lost at least 1 in 4 every time moved a branch or reached for a cluster.

Books will tell you that Juneberries can be used like blueberries, and some will say that they taste better than blueberries. With these as my only sample (some varieties in other locations might taste better), I would have to disagree, but they certainly tasted good. The flavor is mild, and unique, but I would say it has notes of grape, cherry and blueberry.

Sam Thayer and Steve Brill both claim the seeds, which are soft enough to eat, have an almond flavor, but I didn't get that at all. To me they tasted almost like a vegetable, but with a slightly bitter aftertaste that made eating large amounts unpleasant.

Fortunately, the unpleasant flavor of the seeds seemed to completely dissipate when the berry was cooked, so I primarily used the berries cooked or juiced. Most frequently at our house they were made into pancakes, where I think their flavor paired remarkably with maple syrup.  They were also baked into breads, (but not muffins--maybe next year) and mashed into white zinfandel with crushed ice and some freshly squeezed OJ to make a superior sangria.

Thayer recommends drying the fruit, and I intend to try that if I find more fruit as other varieties ripen later in the summer. I'll keep you posted.


  1. Just moved into a new home and have one of these in front, thanks for the post, ours taste fabulous!

  2. Thanks for this! Today I spotted a tree full of these berries, so I snapped a small branch that had a cluster of berries on it to bring home to research it. I tried a few different websites but yours described these perfectly. Thanks for all of the pictures and information! I'm very happy to know that my neighborhood has a natural food tree growing safe berries!

  3. I'm really glad you both found this post useful!

    Sorry about the delay in responding, apparently the phone app doesn't give notifications of replies to my posts.

  4. anyone know if they are safe for dogs to eat?

  5. anyone know if they are safe for dogs to eat?