I think my favorite tree is actually a bush — a shadbush to be precise. (A shadbush tree?) For the past week or so, these resplendent white-flowered showboats have been exploding out of the woods and fields around West Tisbury, where I live.
More than daffodils, forsythia, pinkletinks, or the first robin, for me spring hasn’t officially debuted until I see my first shadbush. Their flowers are more demure than the blossoms of the cherry tree, which appear about the same time, but in a “Hey, look at me!” kind of way; as I come from old Yankee stock, perhaps their relative reserve is one of the things I like about them.
If there had been cherry blossoms around in Colonial times, I’m sure that my ancestors would have looked at them as being a bit “showy” — maybe even shocking to their Puritanical sensibilities.
The beauty of the shadbush was that they were not only beautiful in a “Priscilla Alden wearing a fresh white pinafore” kind of way, but they had a utilitarian value as well. I like to think of the shadbush as the working man’s cherry tree.
Take the name “shadbush”; it refers to the fact that the blossoms coincide with the running of the shad in many streams in New England. A way of saying, “Sure, I look beautiful, but there’s fishing to be done.”
Shadbush are also known as serviceberry trees, and from an etymological standpoint the derivations of serviceberry are rich. One derivation claims that the flowers heralded the time that the roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable, so that circuit-riding preachers could travel into the interior and church “services” could resume.
Another derivation designated the time when the ground was thawed enough to dig graves, and funeral “services” could be had for those who had died over the winter.
And perhaps my favorite derivation for serviceberry refers to the fact that the blossoms indicate the time when farmers should start breeding, or “servicing,” their cattle.
Blossoms that say, “Sure, I look beautiful, but don’t you think it’s time to start thinking about animal husbandry?”