Pick of the week: A serviceberry biography

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As those who have been following our emails may already know, tomorrow will mark our first ever serviceberry harvest with Not Far From The Tree. With over 50 (!) serviceberry trees located around the Ryerson Campus, we thought we could enlist some gleaning assistance. In the world of urban fruit picking, there is no better partner than Not Far From The Tree, a local non-profit food security group who have become widely known for harvesting fruit around the GTA. They distribute the bounty evenly among the pickers, homeowners, and community service organizations, making good use of fresh food that would often otherwise go to waste.

We are really excited about this new partnership, but we are even more excited about the sheer volume of serviceberries that we hope to harvest tomorrow at 5pm. While some of the other fruits that Not Far From The Tree regularly harvests include supermarket favorites like apples, cherries, and peaches, serviceberries are an underappreciated delicacy that typically go unnoticed when we pass them in the street. They grow all over the city, are native to North America, and believe us, they are delicious.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s event, we decided to post some interesting factoids and tidbits about serviceberries to get you guys a little more familiar with the good food that grows on campus.

The tiny purpley-red berries belonging to the amelanchier genus are known by many a name. Out here, we tend to call them serviceberries, but in Western Canada they are more commonly referred to as saskatoon berries. They are also sometimes referred to as wild pear, chuckley pear, juneberry, wild plum, sugarplum, and sarvisberry. While the berries vary slightly from one species to another, the names are often interchangeable, and they all have a similar taste that falls somewhat between a currant and a blueberry, with an aromatic seed that leaves a fragrant aftertaste in your mouth.

A member of the rose family, serviceberries are often grown as ornamentals in urban landscaping, planted not for their fruit, but for their beauty. Their star-shaped flowers are striking, the vibrant berry clusters hanging from glossy green leaves somewhat evoke images of Christmas garlands, and the changing colour of the foliage makes for an awesome spectacle in the autumn months. The result of this ornamental planting is a number of accidental orchards that pop up all around the city, which thousands of people might pass by every day without the slightest inclination that the berries are so palatable.

While people might tend to be unaware of the benefits of this berry, animals are in the loop. Since trees of the amelanchier genus are important native plants in Canada, most varieties provide food and habitat for a number of insects, birds, and mammals. According to the Evergreen Native Plants Database, ruffed grouse, hairy woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and baltimore orioles all favour the berries as a food source, while deer and livestock are known to browse on the leaves. The trees also attract a number of wild bees and butterflies, which are important pollinators to have hanging around food gardens. As native trees, they are well suited to Ontario’s climate and resistant to many pests, fungi, and diseases that often plague other fruit trees and ornamentals. They’ve also been a part of Canadian culture for so long that the city of Saskatoon actually takes its name from the berry, and not the other way around. The word “Saskatoon” derives from the Cree word for the berry: misâskwatômina.

Serviceberries can be consumed either raw or cooked. They have a distinctive yet versatile taste which makes them well suited to substitute blueberries, raspberries, grapes, and currants in smoothies, fruit salads, pancakes, pies, and jams. Excellent as deserts, they are also an exciting addition to savory recipes. Try this mint serviceberry salsa recipe (posted lasted week on Not Far From The Tree’s blog) on top of purslane tacos, burritos, or with chips and dip:

Ingredients:

2 cups fresh serviceberries, mostly chopped (with some left whole)

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh basil, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh mint, coarsely chopped

1 jalapeno pepper, minced and seeded

1/3 cup red bell pepper, diced

1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

pinch of cinnamon

Directions:

Stir all ingredients together in a large bowl, chill in the refrigerator for about an hour and serve with corn chips, or in tacos.

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