Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and serviceberries. All delicious.
But wait, you never heard of serviceberries? No surprise there because they are mostly known and treasured by birds and landscapers, although in great-grandma's day, they were often sold in the markets. You will be hearing more about these sweet, juicy berries soon because foraging is the current hot-button in the foodie spotlight.
Serviceberries are free for the picking, the trees hiding in plain sight along sidewalks and in landscape plantings. Their five-petaled, white flowers bloom before their leaves appear, along with forsythia in early spring. Serviceberries are similar in size and shape to blueberries, and when they ripen in June, the fruit is dark-reddish to purple. The flavor is like a mild blueberry, but inside are soft, almond-flavored seeds.
I have two serviceberry trees in my yard in Chatham Village on Mount Washington. Because Village plantings are never sprayed, I can pluck a few to eat right off the tree. When I get a handful, I rinse them to remove dust and toss them on cereal. If I have a cup or more, I'll make "blueberry" muffins, dusting the top with a mixture of sugar and nutmeg for crunch. They are good added to pancake batter. But in the unlikely event that I'd have almost enough to make a cobbler, I'd go half and half with blueberries.
The hard part is picking them because usually the birds get there first.
Serviceberries? What kind of dumb name is that?
One old story out of Appalachia says the tree is called serviceberry because it blooms about the time when snow-covered roads became passable; that meant that the circuit-riding preachers would be coming soon and church "services" would resume. Elsewhere, the tree goes by the name Juneberry because the fruits ripen in June. Go east, and it is called shadberry because the shad ran in certain New England streams about when the trees bloomed.
The new book, "Backyard Foraging" by Ellen Zachos (Storey, March 2013, $16.95), points out that the Western native variety of Amelchanchier is being commercially harvested in Saskatoon, where they're called Saskatoons (the Cree word for the plant) or Saskatoon berries. The book gives a recipe for "Juneberry Jam" and notes, "It's less important how you eat Juneberries than that you eat Juneberries. This fruit deserves your attention. It's a perennial crop, readily available in quantity, from a low-maintenance and popular ornamental plant, with a first-rate taste. What are you waiting for?"
The serviceberry tree has appeal in all seasons, with blossoms in spring, berries in summer, colorful foliage in fall and gray bark-covered branches that are a graceful presence in winter's snowy landscape.
Pittsburgh's Chatham Village property covers 46 acres; 23 are woodlands and 23 are landscaped housing and grounds. Joe Massarelli is the grounds supervisor. "They are a sturdy tree native to Pennsylvania, and the edible fruit attracts birds to our woods," he says. "The trees are easily transplanted and don't require much moisture. We have about 30 serviceberry trees in the Village." What sold him on the tree's hardiness was how one special tree survived the tornado that ripped through Mount Washington in June 1998.
"A week before the tornado, I planted a 7-foot serviceberry tree at the entrance on the corner of Olympia [Road] and Virginia Avenue," he says. "The tornado tore up the Virginia Avenue alley, snapping off telephone poles, lifting mature trees, ripping through roofing and uprooting plants. The young serviceberry tree was snapped off and the root ball heaved, a victim of the storm. The grounds crew tossed it into the truck with piles of other debris to be hauled to our dump area. Two months later, while cleaning out the last of the storm debris, I found the buried root ball and stump sprouting with six new branches. Even with no sun and no water, that tree was thriving. I took it to my home and planted it as a tornado memento, and I've been a fan of serviceberry trees ever since."
Cinnamon Serviceberry (or Blueberry) Muffins
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
1 large egg
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
11/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) serviceberries (or blueberries)
Topping, optional: combine 2 tablespoons sugar with 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put paper muffin liners in 12 (1/2 cup) muffin cups.
Whisk together butter, brown sugar, milk and egg in a bowl until combined well. Whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl.
Add milk mixture to flour mixture and stir until just combined. Fold in blueberries gently. Divide batter among muffin cups and sprinkle the sugar-nutmeg topping over the muffin batter.
Bake until golden brown and a wooden pick inserted into center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool on a rack. Makes 12.
Marlene Parrish: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-481-1620.