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.