Sweet Surprise in the Front Yard: Juneberries!

My home in central Ohio has a small front yard with a wild tangle of shrubs, plants, and trees. My favorite tree is quite small, with a sculptural braid of thin trunks and a canopy slung low, just about eye-height. It is right next to the front walk, and in spring it is covered with white flowers, followed by red berries in June. I always assumed the berries were ornamental — only for the birds, if anyone — but last spring my landlady surprised me. "Juneberries!" she said. "These are the best."

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Yes, the berries on our tree are edible, and it turns out that they are native to the United States. This tree or shrub has many, many names: Juneberry, shadbush, serviceberry, shadblow, wild sugarplum, saskatoon. The official name is Amelanchier. These shrubs grow in nearly every state, and throughout Canada, too. They are often planted as ornamentals for their graceful shape and foliage.

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But their berries are perfectly edible as well, and in fact, I eagerly look forward now to the appearance of juneberries. They appear in May, and ripen into June. They begin as tiny green berries with a crown on the end, like blueberries, and quickly mature into hot pink, red, and finally dark purple shades. They get sweeter as they mature; the greenish-red berries are sour and insipid, but the red berries taste like almonds and cherries.

In the final stage, the dark purple — almost black — color, the berries are rich and sweet, with the taste of a fully ripe cherry crossed with the slightly tannic flavor of a blueberry. This is when I jealously guard the tree from the squirrels and robins, taking handfuls off every time I enter and leave my house.

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These trees don't make it easy to harvest the fruit; the berries are quite small and while there are many on every tree, they don't cluster in big clumps like cherries. So I probably won't be making a juneberry pie any time soon.

But they are a sweet, unexpected treat, something for free every time I walk out the door. There really is nothing sweeter than fruit, unlooked for, from your own front yard.

Have you ever tried juneberries? What do you think of them? I do plan to plant rows of these when I own a home — they're so beautiful and delicious too.

Related: Foraging Resources: Books, Websites and Organizations

(Images: Faith Durand)