Mystery Plant

John Nelson

The arrival of young fruits on this week’s Mystery Plant gave mountain residents of yesteryear the signal that the spring ground was soft enough at last for burials postponed over the winter.

Last week, I went on another one of my quarantine walks around the neighborhood. There are all sorts of plants to look at, and I’ve been surprised by the “hidden” variety that is out there in people’s yards, both native and non-native species.

This is a small tree in a yard, planted here some years ago, apparently. This plant is a member of the rose family, and there are several species within its genus. (They are not always easy to tell apart, actually.) Additionally, there are several named cultivars and hybrids. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that most gardeners don’t know a whole lot about this plant — which is a shame, as it is a very interesting and attractive native species.

It’s a very early-blooming spring plant; the flowers are quite handsome, in short racemes, each with five skinny, white petals. Its blooms come well before the foliage unfolds. The young fruits develop basically like apples do, and thus are technically what we call “pomes,” much like a Pyracantha. By June, they have swelled and turned purple. Delicious to pick and eat — that is, if you can get to them before the birds.

This species is widespread in the eastern U.S., from Texas to the upper Midwest, and then to New England. It gets down into the Florida panhandle, but not any farther south. It is generally a smallish tree, one with its canopy in the understory.

And now, will you allow me a little stroll down memory lane?

When I was a fledgling botany grad student at Clemson, my professor was John E. Fairey III, who grew up on a farm in Rowesville, South Carolina. He ended up at USC for his bachelor’s degree, and then went on to West Virginia University to study under Earl Core, perhaps the patron saint of botany in West Virginia. (Dr. Core actually had been a student of N.L. Britton, founder of the New York Botanical Garden, where he established a reputation as one of the foremost botanists in the country in the very early 20th century. Of course, I never met Professor Britton, but I did meet Dr. Core once — a very kind, wonderful scientist and gentleman.) Back to Dr. Fairey:

On the faculty in Clemson’s Botany & Bacteriology department, he had a plant taxonomy course, taught much in the style of his USC mentor, Wade T. Batson Jr. (When I was at Carolina, I also took Dr. B’s class; that’s when I decided to become a botanist.)

Dr. Fairey would take us on a field trip every week: such fun! Of course we found and studied our Mystery Plant way up there in the hills of Oconee County, and JE (as he was affectionately called) told us the story about old-time mountain people who, when a loved one died in the winter, would have to wait until spring for the burial; otherwise, the ground was too hard to dig for the burial service. How would they know when the time was right? When the “Serviceberry” bloomed. The tree was also called “sarvis,” which must just be a corruption of “service.”

Answer: “Service tree,” “Sarvis tree,” “Shad tree,” Amelanchier arborea.

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit, call (803) 777-8196 or email

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