In his classic book North with the Spring, Edwin Way Teale follows the season of spring as it moves northward up the east coast of the United States. In World War II, David Teale, the only son of Edwin and Nellie Teale, was killed in a battle. During the dark days of that war, stricken with sorrow, the Teales planned the journey with spring as a way of trying to soothe their grief. When the war was over, the Teales set forth. They followed the season, moving over the countryside from the Florida Everglades, to the Great Smoky Mountains, to Monticello, to the stunted forests of Cape Cod, to Mount Washington. Of the many plants that Mr. Teale describes in his book, one of them is the shadbush, Amelanchier laevis.
Mr. Teale found the shadbush growing along mountainsides in the Great Smoky Mountains and in the pine barrens of New Jersey, where it offered its nectar to the Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly. Teale noted that, in the pine barrens, the shadbush was one of just two sources of spring nectar for this butterfly. In the Jersey pine barrens, the shadbush stands out.
And in the very similar woodlands of Martha’s Vineyard, shadbush stands out, too. A short-statured tree, or perhaps a large statured-shrub, the shadbush blooms at the end of April or the beginning of May, depending on the season. Owing to the cold winter of 2014, spring has arrived a bit late on the island, and on the seventh of May, the shadbush had only just blossomed.
During its brief period of bloom, the white bouquets of the shadbush draw attention to this otherwise unassuming little tree. A few of the island’s larger shadbush trees grow at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve, near the Lily Pond, along the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Further up the road toward Vineyard Haven, a few shadbush trees blossom near Dodger’s Hole, that little glacial kettlehole pond with an island of its own in the middle. Others blossom along the Lambert’s Cove Road, and a great many along the Quansoo Road, and others generally all about.
Through the winter, the leafless shadbush shivers in gray obscurity amid the bare stems of oaks and hickories. When clothed in summer foliage, the shadbush becomes just another shade of the great green blur of the island woods. Yet for a spring fortnight, the shadbush blooms beautifully, its small, white, five-petaled flowers bunched in little sprigs at the end of slender twigs. To the drab oak woodlands, so often wreathed in cold spring fogs, the bright blossoms of the shadbush bring a bit of joy and levity. On this island, flowering dogwoods bloom in the woods, and lovely pears blossom near St. Augustine’s Church, and magnolia delight at the Polly Hill Arboretum, yet the signature tree of island spring is truly the simple shadbush.
The beauty of the shadbush is a spare and economical sort. The shadbush is no magnolia. For that matter, its common name, shadbush, describes the tree not so much for what it is – a shrub – but more for what it signals – the spawning of the American shad. A migratory, anadromous fish, the American shad hatches in the fresh water of a river, migrates to the sea, and returns to its natal river only to spawn. As the spawning runs of American shad coincide with the blossoming of Amelanchier laevis, the tree was given the name shadbush.
The shadbush, however, has another name, one that is not as often used. Its other common name is serviceberry. “Berry,” naturally, refers to the fruit of this tree, but “service?” Service refers, in this case, to a funeral service. The serviceberry name of Amelanchier laevis refers to the fact that when the serviceberry blossoms, the ground has thawed, and the winter’s dead may now be buried.
The dual common names of this tree intrigue me. The name shadbush heralds that which is to arrive – the American shad – and by extension, the spring, and all that it means. The shadbush signals the fragrance of lilac on Main Street, the return of the striped bass, the sound of a baseball thumping into a catcher’s mitt, the hatch of a million mayflies, and the summer yet to come. The name serviceberry, however, is one of loss. The blossoming of serviceberry calls for burying the dead, and for grieving over a fresh grave, and for final farewells. The serviceberry is a tree of burial and mourning, and the shadbush is a tree of spawning and birth, and the two are the very same tree.
The Teales planned their journey to soothe their grief. Ultimately, Edwin Way Teale’s books take the reader through all four seasons: North with the Spring, Autumn Across America, Journey into Summer, and Wandering through Winter. Though the Teales could have chosen any season in which to begin their exploration, they chose the spring. Perhaps it is the promise of this season, of spring, that spoke to the Teales, and that this promise helped, in some way, to ease their deep sorrow.
Grief and promise grow within Amelanchier laevis. Shrouded in May morning mist, the serviceberry mourns, as dewdrops drip from its little white flowers. Yet when the sun comes out, the shadbush cheers, its bright blossoms promising a fish on the hook, or a home run ball smacked over the fence, or a clutch of forsythia for Mother’s Day. Serviceberry mourns, but shadbush smiles, and these two trees in one offer the solace and the promise that the Teales sought in spring.