Photos courtesy of Nancy & Bob Turner
Plant of the Month: June
Saskatoonberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Saskatoonberry, also known as serviceberry or Juneberry, is a medium-sized to tall deciduous shrub (or rarely, a small tree growing up to 10 m tall). Like oceanspray (Wildwood Plant of the Month for May, 2019), saskatoonberry is in the Rose Family (Rosaceae). It blooms in May, and its iconic blue-purple berries start to ripen in June. The berries are a favourite with many people. They are better known on the Canadian Prairies (the city of Saskatoon is named after these berries), and in the Okanagan and other parts of the Interior of British Columbia. However, saskatoonberry also grows all along the BC coast, from Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii, and on the mainland coast, where it is often seen along the edge of rocky shorelines.
The bark of saskatoon is smooth and greyish, the branches upright or somewhat spreading (see Klinkenberg 2017). The shrub sometimes sends up shoots from the roots, and spreads vegetatively as well as by its seeds. The bright green leaves are alternately arranged along the twigs. Generally round or oval in shape, and short-stalked, the leaf blades are 2-5 cm long, with distinctive, even saw-teeth around the top half and smooth-edged around the lower part. They are sometimes slightly hairy beneath. The flowers, each with five elongated petals, are borne in dense terminal clusters, or racemes, and often cover the entire bush in early to mid-May, making it stand out brightly from the dark evergreens that often surround it. The calyx is 5-lobed, encircled by about 20 stamens. A multitude of bees, butterflies and other insects enjoy the flowers and help in pollination.
The clustered fruits are berry-like, but classed botanically as “pomes,” like apples and pears. Globular or ovoid in shape, each “berry” can grow up to 1 cm or more long on a good site, with lots of sunlight and moisture. Bright red when they begin to ripen, they are dark purple when fully ripe, with a whitish waxy coating or “bloom.” The small seeds are surrounded by juicy, distinctive flavoured flesh. A favourite of First Nations and rural people across BC and the Prairies, they are harvested in quantity in the early summer. Multiple varieties are identified and named in various Indigenous languages, and botanists recognize four intergrading varieties of this species in BC.
The local Hul’q’umi’num’ name for saskatoonberry is “tushnéts” and the Straits Salish name is “s-cheech-sun”. The Skidegate Haida call it Gaan xaw’laa, meaning ‘sweet-berry’. First Nations harvested the fruits wherever they found them. The berries can be pulled off by the handful and are delicious eaten fresh from the bushes. Formerly, people would cook the fruits slightly, then mash them, and spread them out to dry in cakes for winter use (Turner 2010). In fact, along with dried bison meat and fat, saskatoons were the main ingredient of pemmican. Along the Fraser River the Stl’atl’imx and others made a similar energy-rich travel food by mixing the dried berries with dried salmon. The berries are also good dried individually, like raisins, and can also be frozen. Today, people make pies, tarts, scones, and muffins, as well as jams, jellies, sauces and other preserves from these versatile berries.
Saskatoonberries are rich sources of some key nutrients: calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, potassium, copper, carotene and Vitamin C, and natural sugars. They also contain high amounts of healthful antioxidants, in the form of phenolics, flavonols, anthocyanins (Kuhnlein and Turner 1991; Mazza 2005; Saskatoon Berry Institute 2019).
Saskatoon wood is hard and resilient. The straight young shoots, which grow especially well a year or two after the bushes are coppiced or cut back to the ground, are used to reinforce the upper rim of birchbark baskets, as well as being used for arrows and knitting needles. The larger branches can be used to make digging sticks and other implements (Turner 1998). The bark of saskatoon bushes is used in various medicinal preparations (Turner and Hebda 2012). Saskatoon bushes do well after a fire, and First Nations in various parts of the province used fire to renew the landscape and promote the growth of these and other kinds of berries.
Many wildlife species also enjoy eating saskatoonberries. It is called “blue grouse berry” in the Kaska language and some other Athapaskan First Nations’ languages. Many other birds also enjoy these sweet berries. An Okanagan name for one variety of saskatoon means “little chipmunk berries” because the bushes are low-growing and the fruits easily accessed by small mammals. Deer, black bear, and many other mammals also eat saskatoons. Plant breeders have produced a number of different varieties of Saskatoon, and some of these are readily available in local nurseries. They make excellent garden shrubs, being so attractive to birds and pollinating insects.
At Wildwood, saskatoonberry is most prominent on the bluffs along the shoreline of Quennell Lake, including right beside the homestead, but can also be found in open woods in other parts of the property.
Klinkenberg, Brian (editor). 2017. E-Flora BC: Electronic Atlas of the Plants of British Columbia. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. http://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Amelanchier%20alnifolia[accessed May 8, 2019]
Kuhnlein, Harriet V. and Nancy J. Turner. 1991 (URL version Published online March 2009). Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples. Nutrition, Botany and Use. Volume 8. In: Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology, edited by S. Katz. Philadelphia, PA: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers; URL: http://www.fao.org/wairdocs/other/ai215e/ai215e00.HTM(UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, Rome)
Mazza, G. 2005. Compositional and functional properties of saskatoon berry and blueberry. International Journal of Fruit Science5(3): 99-118.
Saskatoon Berry Institute of North America. http://saskatoonberryinstitute.org/saskatoons/[accessed May 8, 2019]
Turner, Nancy J. 1998. Plant Technology of British Columbia First Peoples. (Revised and Reissued Handbook, orig. published in 1979 by B.C. Provincial Museum.) University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver and Royal BC Museum, Victoria.
Turner, Nancy J. 2004; rev. 2010. Plants of Haida Gwaii. Xaadaa Gwaay guud gina k'aws (Skidegate), Xaadaa Gwaayee guu giin k'aws (Massett). Sono Nis Press, Winlaw, BC.
Turner, Nancy J. 2010. Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. Royal BC Museum, Victoria.
Turner, Nancy J. and Richard Hebda. 2012. Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Important Plants of the WSÁNEC’ People.Royal BC Museum, Victoria.