When Shadbush (Amelanchier sp.) is in bloom, I know that American Shad are migrating up Connecticut’s rivers to spawn.
The Eastern Shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) is one of 10 species of this native shrub in New England. Other names for Shadbush are Shadblow, Sarvis, and Serviceberry. In the past, when Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) was in flower, it signaled circuit preachers to ride through Appalachian coves and “hollers.” It was also a sign that the ground was thawed enough for people to hold funerals and bury their dead. I really feel for those who cannot gather for memorial services for their loved ones now. But I also think about spring as a time for re-birth and the return of life.
Shadbush’s white flowers are pollinated by small, solitary ground-nesting digger bees (Andrena sp.), mason bees (Osmia sp.), and queen bumble bees (Bombus sp.) who are establishing new colonies. Once pollinated and fertilized, very tasty red to blue berries form in June, hence another common name, Juneberry. The fruits are very tasty, that is if you can beat the birds to them! Quite a few shadbushes have been planted around Yale University’s Central Campus. Each June I walk by these trees and grab berries to eat, much to the puzzlement of passersby. Shadbush fruit helped Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition to survive when there wasn’t much else in the St. Louis area in May 1804.
Shadbush is a great 20- to 30-foot (6- to 9-meter) native tree to plant in your yard. It is quite tolerant of light, flowering best in part-sun to sunny locations in a variety of soils. Just make sure to water it once a week in its first year.
The American Shad (Alosa sapidissima), a member of the herring family, is also very tasty. The species name means “most savory” or “most delicious.” Shad were an important seasonal part of Native peoples’ diets. Captain John Smith, exploring near the Great Falls of the Potomac River, observed in his The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles in 1624 that Shad were “lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets…we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.” The shad that Smith saw were migrating from the ocean up the river to spawn. A fish with this life cycle is anadromous. Other anadromous shad relatives are the Alewife (Alosa pseudoharangus) and Blueback Herring (Alosa aestivalis).
American Shad feed on plankton, small shrimp, fish eggs, and occasionally small fish. They in turn are food for ospreys, herons, other fish, and seals, as well as humans.
Since the 1950s, two festivals along the Connecticut River have celebrated the return of the shad from the sea: the Windsor Shad Derby Festival in mid-May and the annual Essex Shad Bake during the first week in June. These events were created to raise awareness about pollution in the Connecticut River and the decline of shad populations. Visitors are treated to cookouts with planked shad smoked on open fires.
Shad populations had also dropped steeply because of dams in many rivers. New Haven-based Save The Sound, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other organizations have been removing many of the 4,000 dams in Connecticut and the American Shad is rebounding. In this Anthropocene epoch, in which humans have drastically changed our planet in many negative ways, that’s a positive environmental story.