I wanted to dive in a bit deeper to one of my favorite tree name origin stories, and the second natural history myth I’ve written about: the origin of the name serviceberry. (Check out the first myth: biomass of red-backed salamanders vs deer)

Vermont Tree Names And Their Origins

The “Service” Myth

I’d heard the origin of the name serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) well before I even knew what the tree looked like. It goes something like this: when Europeans were first colonizing New England, the strange land was a fierce, unrelenting, and unforgiving environment, so troublingly reflected in the mortality rates (about 1 of every 5 babies born died in their first year, over 1/3 died before adulthood: sourcesource). In the all-too-common case that someone died during the long cold winter months, their body was stored anywhere it would be exposed to cold temperatures but protected from snow and rain: barns, sheds, caves. In more populous, established villages, the town and/or churches had a dead house (or mort or sometimes charnel houses) for temporary storage of bodies/bones before burial. It was only when the weather warmed and the ground softened that the dead could be buried.

A dead house next to the Garpenberg church in Sweden

Well sort of. The ground thawing may have allowed early settlers living in remote areas of the Green Mountains to dig graves, but it didn’t mean there would be anyone to preside over the burial. Itinerant preachers – like Lemuel Haynes, the first ordained African American minister – made the trek up into these cold, isolated hollows throughout New England only after the spring thaw. During their brief stays in a village, they would baptize babies, perform marriages, and preside over the funerals. Down in the Appalachians, they say that the preachers would begin the hike up into the mountains to perform the services right around the same time those beautiful, showy white flowers of Amelanchier, or serviceberry, were bursting to life against a drab forest backdrop sometime in late April to early.

It’s a nice story, but it’s not true!

SIDE NOTE: When I’d bury the dead

If I had to use a cue from nature to know when to bury the dead, I’d tune into the loud night-time crunching of earthworms munching on crisp leaves. In anticipation of winter, nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) burrow down below the frostline to weather out the cold. When the ground thaws, they tunnel back up to the surface, extend their bodies out from their whole, grab a small bouquet of the crisp, crunchy leaves from the forest floor, and draw these down into their burrow to eat. However, in the 1600s, when all those colonists were dying of starvation and disease, New England’s forests had yet to be overrun by invasive earthworms in the 1600s.

An earthworm tunnel filled in with the partially broken down leaves the worm had pulled in (Wheeler Natural Area, South Burlington)

The “Service” Truth

While serviceberry, aka juneberry (as the fruits ripen in June) aka shadbush (shad are a type of saltwater fish that spawn in freshwater, ) does flower early in the spring (again, late-April to early-May), it certainly isn’t the first or even the only tree flowering at that time. There are other more abundant trees that might better indicate a thawed ground. Perhaps it was simply the showiest of these early season flowering trees and shrubs and so grabbed the attention of itinerant preacher. Every year I run up to Colchester in spring to delight in the stretch along Holy Cross Rd that’s lined with flowering serviceberries. The first time I saw this, I stopped in my tracks and just stared open mouthed at the beautiful flowers.

But the problem with the name isn’t about how showy it is or whether or not it coincides with when itinerant preachers made their way to remote areas in the spring.

A real crummy photo I took while out on a run on May 12, 2019 (Colchester)

Problems with the origin story

As I see it, there are three main problems with this origin story:

1. The name predates the colonies. By a lot. The service in serviceberry comes from “sorbus” (see #2), which had been used to refer to a different plant (see #3) since at least the 1520s. People in Europe and other northern climates would’ve had the same problem of having to wait to bury the dead (and there were itinerant preachers long before Europeans – even the Vikings – ever laid eyes on the New World), so it is possible they used the plant as a similar cue for burying the dead. But…

2. The name is what etymologists call a loanword subsequently changed by folk etymology. Loanwords are words borrowed from other languages, and many of these sound similar to words that already exist in the language. So, for example, the Spanish word cucaracha sounds similar to “cock” + “roach” so we get cockroach. Sorbus, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European stem “sor” and means red to reddish-brown. sounds similar to service, so we get service.

3. The name initially applied to another species in a different genus. The red part of “sorbus” refers to the brilliant red fruits of rowan, or mountain ash, Sorbus aucparia (we have a native species, the American mountain-ash, or Sorbus americana). Rowan, by the way, also comes from a PIE word which means red. While the fruits of serviceberry can be dark purple, they are frequently a beautiful purplish red.

So there you have it, the true meaning of the name: red berry!

The young, purplish red fruit of serviceberry - stamen and pistil still visible (Airport Park, Colchester)

For more on the origins and meaning of tree names, check out the booklet, available in both a PDF version and as a webpage.

Vermont Tree Names And Their Origins

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