Serviceberry is recurring harbinger of spring
I have two options when driving back and forth from home to town. One is along a river and the other isn’t. The choice is easy. I always follow the route along the north side of the Tuckaseigee west of Bryson City. If asked to name that section of road I’d name it for a tree. I’d call it Sarvis Road because every year that’s where I note for the first time — as I did this past Monday — that serviceberry is in bloom. The showy white flowers with their ribbon-like petals are frequently so numerous on a given tree’s bare limbs they seem to be inundated with snow. They seem even whiter this year.
The tree known as serviceberry, Juneberry, shadbush (or shadblow), and sugarplum in other parts of the country is referred to throughout the southern mountains as sarviceberry, sarvisberry, sarvissberry, sarviss tree, sarviss, or sarvis. This colloquial pronunciation of “service” is thought to have originated in the Appalachians. But, as we shall see, the origin of the name is perhaps more complicated than that.
Serviceberry is a member of the rose family, along with chokeberry, hawthorn, apple, plum, pear, mountain ash, rose, and others. There are five species of serviceberry in the Blue Ridge Province from southern Pennsylvania into north Georgia. Only two of these are common in WNC.
Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier aborea) is found mostly below 3,000 feet. Its leaves, which are usually heart-shaped at the base, are covered underneath (or at least along veins and leafstalk) with white hairs during the flowering period. The fruits are reddish purple, being dry and not tasty to humans, although birds seem to like them just fine. Smooth serviceberry (A. laevis) is found from the lowest elevations to 6,000 or so feet. Its leaves, which are usually not heart-shaped at the base, are hairless. The fruits, which appear from June into August, are dark purple, juicy, and tasty to humans and birds alike. Beating the birds to them is just about impossible.
Now we return to the common names. Juneberry and sugarplum are self-evident. Why it’s known in coastal areas as either shadbush or shadblow is also clear enough; that is, the spring migration of shad from the ocean into upland freshwater streams occurs in early spring when the species found in those regions are in bloom. The word blow can have the meaning of “in a state of blossoming.”
Tracking the common name sarvis is tricky. Retired Western Carolina University botanist Jim Horton notes in The Summer Times (1979): “Several explanations are advanced for the common name serviceberry … The most interesting, though not necessarily the most accurate, holds that the tree blooms during ‘service’ time; the time when old-timey itinerant preachers were first penetrating the mountains after the spring thaw and performing services: baptizing babies born during the winter, performing marriages (probably legitimizing the babies baptized) and the like.”
In A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950), naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, who lived for awhile during the 1930s near Tryon, notes: “It is from the fruits that the Sarvissberry takes its name, for the word is a transformation of the ‘sorbus’ given by the Romans to a related kind of fruit.” WCU biologist Jim Costa, director of the Highlands Biological Station and author of Highlands Botanical Garden: A Naturalist’s Guide (2012), identifies the European species as Sorbus domestica and notes that the “the service of serviceberry was likely transferred from that species.”
There are variant forms of Sorbus domestica. One has pale fruits shaped like apples. The other has vibrant red fruits shaped like pears.
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) cites “sarves” as a variant form of “service.” I suspect the North American tree came to be known as serviceberry along the eastern seaboard because its fruits were similar to the European service (or sorbus) tree; then, here in the southern mountains, several species of this tree just happened to bloom in profusion when their flowers were handy for spring ceremonials (including funerals) came to be known as “sarvis.” Curiously enough, however, that Appalachian colloquialism for “service” apparently wasn’t newly-minted here, as is often inferred. Instead, it represented the revival of an older European colloquialism: “sarves.” Yet another instance of how resilient language can be through time, across great distances, and even from language to language.