Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Some Shad-Bush Thoughts

Last weekend we planted a service tree, Amelanchier canadensis, in the back yard. Nathaniel Lord Britton and Addison Brown, An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913; rpt. New York: Dover, 1970), II, 291, give several other common names for this plant, including June-berry, service-berry, May-cherry, sand-cherry, May-pear, juice-pear, wild Indian pear, Indian cherry, shad-bush, etc.

Thoreau often mentions the tree, although it's sometimes difficult to determine which of the six species of Amelanchier he's talking about. I haven't tracked down all of the passages in his Journal, but on June 25, 1853, he praised the fruit of the tree:
To Assabet bathing-place. Found an unusual quantity of Amelanchier berries. I think of the two common kinds, one a taller bush twice as high as my head, with thinner and lighter colored leaves, and larger, or at least somewhat softer, fruit, the other, a shorter bush, with more rigid and darker leaves, and dark, blue berries, with often a sort of wooliness on them. Both these are now in their prime. These are the first berries after strawberries, or the first and, I think, the sweetest bush berries, somewhat like high blueberries, but not so hard. Much eaten by insects, worms, etc., as big as the largest blueberries or peas. These are the "service berries" which the Indians of the north and the Canadians use, "la poire" of the latter. They, by a little, precede the early blueberry (though H—— brought two quarts of the last, day before yesterday), being now in their prime, while blueberries are but just beginning. I never saw nearly so many before. It is a very agreeable surprise. I hear the cherry-birds and others about me, no doubt attracted by this fruit. It is owing to some peculiarity of the season that they bear fruit. I have picked a quart of them for a pudding. I felt all the while I was picking them, in the low, light, waving, shrubby wood they make, as if I were in a foreign country. Several old farmers say, "Well, though I have lived seventy years, I never saw nor heard of them." I think them a delicious berry. No doubt they require only to be more abundant every year to be appreciated.
See also Thoreau's Journal for October 13, 1859:
The shad-bush is leafing again by the sunny swamp-side. It is like a youthful or poetic thought in old age. Several times I have been cheered by this sight when surveying in former years. The chickadee seems to lisp a sweeter note at the sight of it. I would not fear the winter more than the shad-bush which puts forth fresh and tender leaves on its approach. In the fall I will take this for my coat-of-arms. It seems to detain the sun that expands it. These twigs are so full of life that they can hardly contain themselves. They ignore winter. They anticipate spring. What faith! Away in some warm and sheltered recess in the swamp you find where these leaves have expanded. It is a foretaste of spring. In my latter years, let me have some shad-bush thoughts.
The derivation of the generic name is interesting. Here's my rough attempt at a translation of Helmut Genaust, Etymologische Wörterbuch der botanischen Pflanzennamen, 3rd ed. (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1996), p. 56, s.v. Amelanchier:
serviceberry: French amélanchier "wild medlar, serviceberry" (N. Lémery, Dictionnaire des drogues, 1733), which is derived from French amélanche (serviceberry fruit) with the French tree suffix -ier (cf. la pomme > le pommier, apple tree). This word, confined to Savoy and southeast Provence, came into being through a false separation of the article (la mélanche > l'amélanche) and leads back, with southeast Provencal melanko, belanko, melenko, berlenko (alpine medlar, serviceberry), to the pre-Romance form *melanca, *melenka (same meaning) (Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch 9696). These forms (with Ligurian suffix -anka, -enka) are certainly derived from the Indo-European root *mel- with color signification "dingy gray, dark colored, black" (Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch 1, 720f.), to which root Greek mélas (black), Sanskrit maliná- (dingy, black), and Latvian męlns (black) also belong. Hence the genus is named from its dark purple fruits. Cf. Dauzat 27. On erroneous attempts to derive this word (borrowed in botanical nomenclature directly from French) from Greek, see G.C. Wittstein, Etymologisch-botanisches Handwörterbuch 36, and A. Seybold, Lehrbuch der Botanik 1,63.
‹Felsenbirne›: frz. amélanchier ‹néflier sauvage, Felsenbirne› (N. Lémery, Dict. des drogues, 1733), das mit dem frz. Baumnamensuffix -ier (vgl. la pomme > le pommier ‹Apfelbaum>) von frz. amélanche ‹Felsenbirne (Frucht)› abgeleitet ist. Dieses auf Savoyen und die südöstl. Provence beschränkte Wort ist durch falsche Abtrennung des Artikels (la mélanche > l'amélanche) entstanden und führt mit südostprov. melanko, belanko, melenko, berlenko ‹Alpenmispel, Felsenbirne› auf die vorröm. Form *melanca, *melenka ‹ds.› zurück (REW 9696). Diese Formen sind sicher mit dem ligur. Suffix -anka, -enka von der idg. Wz. *mel- in Farbezeichnungen ‹schmutziggrau, dunkelfarbig, schwarz› (IEW 1, 720f.) abgeleitet, zu der auch gr. mélas ‹schwarz›, aind. maliná- ‹schmutzig, schwarz›, lett. męlns ‹schwarz› usw. gehören. Somit ist die Gatt. nach ihren schwarzvioletten Früchten benannt. — Vgl. Dauzat 27. — Über abwegige Versuche, das aus dem Französischen direkt in die bot. Nomenklatur übernommene Wort aus dem Griech. zu denken, s. Wi. 36, A. Seybold 1,63.
Many authorities restrict the range of Amelanchier canadensis to the eastern coast regions of Canada and the United States, but it does seem to be native to Minnesota. See, e.g., Frederic E. Clements et al., Minnesota Trees and Shrubs (1912), p. 151: "Distributed from Newfoundland to Minnesota to Florida and Louisiana." I haven't seen Etlar L. Nielsen, "A Taxonomic Study of the Genus Amelanchier in Minnesota," American Midland Naturalist 22.1 (July 1939) 160-206.

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