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Shad. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

ONE OF THE LOVELY SIGNS of spring is the shad tree, also called downy serviceberry, shadblow, juneberry, shadbush, sarvis-tree or serviceberry, Saskatoon, shadwood, sugarplum or wild-plum. There are at least 20 species included under the genus Amelanchier and many shad trees are genetic combinations of them. The tree or bush trunks are gray, and white flowers cover the branches in early spring, as in my photo. They belong to the rose family and in June produce small, sweet edible fruits about 1/3” in diameter. Native Americans ate them and taught the early settlers to use them too.

Birds usually eat the berries before we can collect them. The seeds pass through the birds and are left along hedgerows and other woodland areas to produce more trees. There is a whole row of shad trees that grow at the sides of the old road that once carried my ancestors along the edge of our farm and over to Harlemville to the store and the Methodist Church. My father let them grow, and each year they welcome spring. In the fall the leaves turn bright yellow to red.

Plant life is blooming early this year and we all are wondering what this will do to the birds and others that eat early fruits. We have the likelihood of frost until Memorial Day, and this could damage many things, including our apple and fruit tree crops as well as the wild shad berries. The shadbush got its name because it blooms at the time the shad fish are running in the rivers. These fish and other members of the herring family live in the Atlantic Ocean and return in spring to the rivers where they were spawned, and lay their eggs for the next generation. Native Americans relied on these abundant fish for food as well as a crop fertilizer and again taught the early settlers about this part of their life.

Most of the long-time residents of our area welcome this season by fishing for or eating the shad fish and its roe. I can’t think of shad without thinking of the late Everett Nack of Claverack. He was a local commercial fisherman who knew our portion of the Hudson River and shad fishing better than anyone, and contributed his knowledge and experience to help our River and its fish. We greatly miss our yearly visits with Everett and his sister Gladys, when we purchased freshly caught shad, shad roe and in earlier years, sturgeon. You could get up front and personal with all these things at Everett’s place and I loved to actually touch the sturgeon and hear the stories of how they were caught and of the different species. Everett even took some of us Alan Devoe Bird Club members out in his boats to learn about the river.

It is so sad that this once common American staple of the Colonies almost vanished because of our pollution and abuse of the river habitat. When Everett saw the numbers so drastically reduced, he stopped taking the lucrative sturgeon and worked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to help the sturgeon. Now you see the sturgeon signs at many streams that flow into the Hudson River and sturgeon are protected.

Shad and other herring species are in decline too, and with our ongoing work to clean up the river and streams we hope for the eventual return of all of them to the abundance of the 1600s. Despite the many bones in the shad, we carefully ate and savored these delicious fish. The rich shad roe is a gourmet treat too, to be slowly fried in butter over low heat. Heated too fast, the little eggs explode, pop, and sizzle. Not a good thing. Sometimes we added a little Marsala wine, and as Emeril Lagasse says,” kick it up a notch.” We hadn’t tried his hot pepper “BAM” technique, but that is something to consider. Hmmm, blackened shad….

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