Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Amelanchier alnifora Nutt.

By Adam Benfer

Serviceberries were an important part of the deities of many Native American tribes. Common names for the serviceberry shrub include the western serviceberry, juneberry, western juneberry, sarvis tree, sarvisberry, alderleaf sarvisberry, shad, shadberry, shadblow, shadbush, saskatoon, saskatoon serviceberry, saskatoon berry, pigeonberry, comier, Indian pear, sugar pear, sweet pear, grape pear, poire, sugar plum, mountain pear, and currant tree (Angier [2008] 1974: 202; Kindscher 1987: 28; McPherson and McPherson 1977: 114).


Serviceberry shrubs look similar to small trees growing between 1 to 3 m (3 to 10 ft) tall. The branches are brown and without thorns, though young branches exhibit hairiness. The broad elliptic 2.5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 in) long leaves alternate and have toothed edges. The whites or pink flowers bloom from late April to May in elongated groups of 3 to 20. Each flower has 5 petals that are about 6 to 8 mm (1/4 to 5/16 in) long. Serviceberry fruits are fleshy and round with a diameter of 8 to 11 mm (5/16 -7/16 in). The ripe dark purple, sweet, and juicy berries are ready to be picked sometime in June or August (Kindscher 1987: 28; Marles et al. 2000: 229).

Geographic Distribution

Serviceberries grow from Alaska to Newfoundland and as far south as Mexico. Though some varieties can be found on dry and rocky slopes and others in bogs and swamps, most prefer moist but well-drained habitats with little cover, such as the rims of woods, brushy hillsides, and creek banks (Angier [2008] 1974: 202; Kindscher 1987: 28).

Food Use

During the summer the ripe serviceberry fruits can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried. The leaves can be dried and used for tea (Kindscher 1987: 28). Many Native North American tribes commonly ate the sweet and juicy ripe serviceberry fruit. For some tribes, like the Blackfoot and the Okanagon, serviceberries were considered a dietary stable food. While the fresh fruits are delicious raw, they are commonly sun dried, either loosely or mashed and pressed into cakes. In order to make pemmican, animal fat and dried meats can also be added to the dried serviceberry cakes. Serviceberries were also mixed with animal fat and stuffed into intestine to make sausages. Other methods of preserving these berries include make them into jams and jellies, freezing them, or fermenting them to make wine. Serviceberries can also be used in muffins, pies, puddings, soups, porridge, and other tasty culinary creations. The berries were not the only part of the plant eaten. The Lakota made a unique beverage by boiling serviceberry petals, leaves, and small stems together. The Cheyenne used the dried leaves to make a red tea (Moerman 1998: 67-69).

Other Uses

Materials from the serviceberry shrub can also be used for medicine, fiber, and other uses. Moerman (1998: 67-69) notes that the parts of the serviceberry fruits and/or shrubs have been used by indigenous peoples as an ear medicine, eye medicine, cathartic, gastronomical aid, laxative, cold remedy, cough medicine, diaphoretic, flu medicine, fever reducer, pulmonary aid, toothache remedy, tonic, contraceptive, pediatric aid, gynecological aid, venereal aid, antidiarrheal, anthelmintic (treatment against worms), blood medicine, disinfectant, and as an emetic. Young serviceberry stems, branches, and wood have been used in basketry, furniture making, rope making, arrow and harpoon making, tool making, and in the construction of popgun pistons. The Blackfoot used the berries in a harvest game.


Angier, Bradford
[2008] 1974 Field guide to edible wild plants (revised & updated). 2 ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. Kindscher, Kelly
1987 Edible wild plants of the prairie : an ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. Marles, Robin James, Canada. Natural Resources Canada., and Canadian Forest Service. 2000 Aboriginal plant use in Canada's northwest boreal forest. Vancouver: UBC Press. McPherson, Alan, and Sue McPherson 1977 Wild food plants of Indiana and adjacent states. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.