Thursday, May 6, 2010
Shadblow And Alewives
The Service Berries are in bloom. The diaphanous shrubs almost look like puffs of smoke across the marshes and meadows. Indigenous to North America, the small trees are not only lovely, but important to wildlife for the fruit they bear. I just planted one for a gardening customer at the bottom of their serene meadow. It’s in a perfect setting where the soil is consistently moist and the flowers will be back lit by the evening’s setting sun. It has plenty of space to send out suckers and make a clump which it prefers to do. Maybe I’ll talk to them about putting in some ferns around it’s legs. It’s also fiddlehead season, so it seems like an appropriate combination; they like the same conditions. The tight fisted crosiers of Ostrich ferns are a traditional Maine spring food. Like the flowers of the Service Berries, they are only around briefly before they unfurl and aren’t edible any longer. It has been a record breaking warm spring making us tend to forget that often at this time of year, there is still frost in the ground in the deep woods and in Aroostook County - “The Crown” of Maine. ‘Service Berries’ were given the name because their bloom coincides with when the ground has thawed and can reliably be dug to inter those who died when it was still frozen. When the Service Berries bloom, winter is over. They are also called Shadbush and Shadblow because they bloom when the shad or Alewives run. ‘Blow’ is an old fashioned word meaning full bloom. The Alewives have just started to run. When I was young, my father took me up the coast from here to Damariscotta Mills to see them. Alewives are a type of herring that lives out at sea, but travels up freshwater rivers to breed and spawn. Damariscotta Mills is narrow so thousands of the fish can be seen clearly from the shore. The Osprey, gulls and eagles go crazy feeding. At night, the raccoons come around for the dead ones that line the shore. For many of us, like eating fiddleheads, it’s a spring ritual to go there to see the fish and birds. I remember kneeling down and putting my hands in the water to feel them when I was a kid. The water was so thick with them you could literally grab them with nothing more than your hand. So many people go there now that there is a parking lot and traffic jams. When I was a kid, though, my father and I had to climb down the banking through the bushes risking poison ivy and a slip and fall on wet rocks. We could hear the water and feel the cool mist from the little falls above the pools of fish before we came through the bushes. It was thrilling! Alewives are caught en masse by netting. Today they are used mostly as bait fish for lobster trapping. When eaten, they are usually smoked, though I’m told they have a very mild flavor. Traditionally, a little vinegar is served with them which is true of fiddleheads, too. I can only imagine, back in the days of our settlers in the late 1600s and early 1700s, how thankful folks must have been after surviving winter to have fresh fiddleheads, bountiful fishes and to be able to bury their dead. They must have wept when the Shadbush bloomed.