Monday, 28 December 2009

Service trees and shad fish

During my researches on the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) I quickly became aware that there were trees often called services or serviceberries in North America. They are usually known to gardeners as amelanchiers and the word ‘service’ is used mainly for Amelanchier canadensis and related species. The word ‘service’ in America is often pronounced ‘sarvice’ or ‘sarvis’ and this is reminiscent of my father and his friends who, when they were children in south west Essex, UK, in the early 20th century, called wild service fruits ‘sarvers’ or ‘sarvies’.

These North American amelanchiers are not at all like European wild service trees, or much like any other service (Sorbus spp.), though they are in the same plant family, Rosaceae.

Among the various North American names for amelanchiers ‘shadberry’ or ‘shad bush’ and variants are as widely used as ‘serviceberry’ and its variants (Hall, 2002). The only explanation I have seen for the name shadberry is that the tree flowers in a quite striking way when the shad, a migratory fish, are running upstream. As amelanchiers often occur along river banks this seems to be a reasonable explanation.

However, the usual German name for the wild service tree is Elsbeere or Elsebeere and Else in German means ‘shad’, the fish. Thus it seems feasible that, if German settlers in North America had called the amelanchier Elsbeere or Elsebeere, this could have been translated either to ‘serviceberry’ or ‘shadberry’ as English became their first language. The fact that both words have no central break may also be indicative of a German origin.

This does not explain why the early settlers would have called the amelanchier Elsbeere in the first place as it does not resemble the European wild service. A possible explanation is that German Elsebeere also means ‘bird cherry’ (Prunus padus) according to Grimm & Grimm (1854 to 1960) and the European bird cherry is quite similar to the amelanchiers. It is of a similar size and shape, has similar ovoid leaves, white flowers and bunches of black fruit.

If this explanation for the origin of shadberry and serviceberry is correct, one wonders why terms originating with the German-speaking community became those generally used for North American amelanchiers.


Grimm, J. & Grimm, W. (1854-1960) Deutsches Wörterbuch. S. Hirzel, Leipzig.

Hall, J. H. (2002) Dictionary Of American Regional English, Volume IV, P-Sk. Harvard University Press

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