Saskatoon Berry / Serviceberry / Juneberry (Amelanchier spp.)
Incredibly popular in prairie Canada, specifically Saskatchewan, where they grow abundantly and where I first tasted them, Saskatoons are one of my very favorite wild edibles. (Saskatoon is also the name of Saskatchewan’s second-largest city, which makes sense, as Saskatoons are found all over the prairie. The name ‘Saskatoon’ is believed to have derived from a Cree word for this berry. Saskatoonberries are also called Serviceberries or Juneberries, depending on the species and region. They're all part of the Amelanchier genus, and used interchangeably. Historically, the antioxidant and nutrition-rich berries were a staple food, used fresh or dried. The Blackfoot and Cree mixed dried Saskatoons with dried meat and animal fat to create the trail food called pemmican. Early settlers also enjoyed the berries, and likely depended on them for survival over the long prairie winters.
These berries are a treat - sweet and juicy, lightly floral with a faint almond-like flavor, and exceedingly versatile. This tree has become a popular ornamental, and I find them all over town. The berries are delicious right off the tree, and can also be made into jams, pies, wine…all kinds of yummy things! The birds like them too, and if I don’t keep my eye on them, there’s often not enough for me to harvest for big projects like jam or pie. I usually like to freeze about half my harvest of berries to add to my morning oatmeal in the wintertime. Saskatoons also add a yummy taste and texture to apple recipes like cobbler and pie.
Trees in the Amelanchier genus can be small trees or multi-stemmed large shrubs, anywhere from 8-35 feet tall. Their showy white 5-petaled flowers are typically seen in mid-April, while clusters of small round purple berries ripen in June (hence the name Juneberry). The leaves are simple, alternate, toothed, oval to oblong, between 1-3 inches long. Though it prefers moist, well-drained, rich soil and part sun, this tree will tolerate a variety of light and soil conditions, and can be found growing across the US and Canada.
The Saskatoon berry tree botanically belongs in the Rose family, like Strawberries, Raspberries, and many other fruits we love to eat. There are many species of Amelanchier, and many of them have delicious fruits. The Saskatoon berry in particular is the species Amelanchier alnifolia. Here in southeastern Michigan most of the Amelanchier I find is Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) or Shadblow Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis). There are of course plenty of hybrids for sale in nurseries and such, so identification can be tricky especially with ornamentally planted trees. There are no toxic look-alikes.
Berry, Leaf, Twig, Bark
Food, tea, tincture, vinegar
Herbally, Amelanchier is not widely used at present, but has some traditional use among First Nations and Native American tribes, as well as folk medicine of both the north and south. The trees of the Amelanchier genus are Rose family astringents, with highly nutritious berries that can be used in a variety of ways.
Saskatoonberry seems to have been traditionally used as part of a spring tonic, the leaves and fruits for teas, roots and twigs for coughs and colds, bark for diarrhea and dysentery, and the fruits to “improve loss of appetite in children.” There are also multiple references of Serviceberry’s use for women, in pregnancy, during birth, and postpartum care especially.
Appalachian herbalist Tommie Bass used Serviceberry bark both for stomach ailments and for coughs and colds, though there is some debate whether he meant Amelanchier trees or the closely related Sorbus, which he called Wild Service Tree but many of us know as American Mountain Ash. Both trees are in the Rose family, and Mountain Ash is also edible and medicinally used.
I like to eat the berries fresh, dry them for tea, and infuse them in apple cider vinegar with other wild-foraged berries to make a refreshing summertime beverage. Saskatoon berries make a delicious addition to hot oatmeal, too. Freeze whatever you don’t use during the summer, so you can enjoy these little gems all year long!