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Glacier’s Plants – Western Serviceberry

Serviceberry - Wikipedia photo

This rosaceous shrub is often divided into several poorly defined varieties, but the delicate white flowers make it easy to recognizee. The apple-like fruits are 3/8 t0 1/2 inch in diameter, becoming dark purple at maturity. — “Plants of Waterton-Glacier National Parks” by Richard J. Shaw and Danny On.

Like many Glacier Park hikers, I snagged hundreds of the more widely known huckleberries, ending up with purple fingers, and usually missed out on this highly versatile and widespread berry.

As Shaw and On suggest, you’ll find it called by multiple names throughout the country, including sarvis berry, sarviceberry, wild pear, chuckley pear, wild-plum, Saskatoon, Juneberry and shadbush. In Canada, Saskatoon, after an old Cree word, is the preferred name. In fact, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is named after the berry. The variety in the park is Amelanchier alnifolia.

The berries were one of the traditional foods of the Blackfeet. They were mixed into pemmican with dried meat and eaten raw. You’ll find them referenced in the works of George Bird Grinnell (How the Blackfoot Lived), Walter McClintock (The Old North Trail), James Willard Schultz (My Life as an Indian) and other western writers.

In my old, dog-eared copy of The Old North Trail, I enjoy reading McClintock’s detailed accounts of Blackfeet stories and customs, including the sarvis berry information in chapter XXXXVI:

DURING my visit at Brings-down-the-Sun’s camp, the women were gathering their
winter supply of sarvis berries. The bushes, which the old chief so carefully
guarded, were loaded down with ripe fruit. Their method was to strike the bushes
with sticks, catching the berries in blankets, and then spreading them in the
sun to dry. Berry-bags for carrying them were made of small skins from deer
legs, wolf-pups or unborn calves of large animals such as the elk, or deer, or,
most often, of the buffalo. I saw a beautiful berry-bag made of a spotted fawn
skin and ornamented with coloured porcupine quills. Sarvis berries are a
favourite article of diet with all the plains-tribes. They are eaten raw or
cooked in soups and stews. My Indian friends warned me that the berries
sometimes make people very ill, who are not accustomed to eating them.

The berries work well in jams, pies, beer, cider and wine, though some people supplement them with huckleberries for color and taste. When you’re gathering them, you may have to fight off a few bears, squirrels and chipmunks. Moose and elk like the foliage.

In my contemporary fantasy, Sarabande, the native healer stirs flour, sugar and dried meat into a pot of boiled berries for a soup that can be eaten hot or cold. If you want to try the berries in pie, you’ll find two recipes here.  Here’s a pie recipe that includes rhubarb. For wine, check this site.

Since the serviceberry—under one name or another—can be found throughout Canda and the United States (except Hawaii), chances are you might enjoy a few tasty berries on your next summer hike.


contemporary fantasy set in Glacier Park

  1. Of all the berries around, that is by far my favorite. My favorite way of eating them is to put a large handful into my mouth all at once and enjoy the flood of juice and flavor. I’ve made many a meal out of serviceberries alone, and chased more than a few bears out of the bushes as well.

    October 11, 2011
    • When it comes to berries, whether serviceberries, blueberries, or huckleberries, I really like the “large handfull” approach.


      October 11, 2011
  2. Smoky Zeidel #

    The service berries were pretty well picked over when we were in Kings Canyon last weekend, as they are a favorite food of black bears. You can always tell when berries are in season by looking at bear scat. But that might be TMI…especially if I mention what it does to bear scat! 😎 (Blame the painkillers. Please!)

    October 11, 2011
    • Well, what it “does” to bear scat is something I’ve made sure to mention in my books, but in a tasteful way.


      October 11, 2011
      • Smoky Zeidel #

        I can’t believe you just used the words “tasteful” and “bear scat” in the same sentence. 😉

        October 11, 2011
        • I love the bad feeling people get when they see incongruous ingredients mixed into the stew.


          October 11, 2011
          • Smoky Zeidel #

            I ever tell you about the “bear bathroom” at Sequoia? Next to Crescent Meadow, a place you pert near always can see bears. On the east side of the meadow, just in the Sequoia forest, about a 400-sq. foot area that held just piles and piles of scat. You didn’t see it anywhere else around the edge of the meadow; just one that one side. TMI?

            October 11, 2011
            • Ought to make a pretty wall photograph for the livingroom or Facebook or another Earth Mage book. The cutline is: Squatters Take Over Meadow.


              October 11, 2011
            • Lesa Campbell #

              I’m always hearing about the huckleberry trots or some-kind-of-berry diarrhea.

              October 11, 2011
              • Those bears need a supply of Pepto-Bismol.


                October 11, 2011

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