I had a student a few years ago who joined me on my annual field research trip. Soft-spoken and kind, she also possessed an almost Germanic economy with words, electing to concoct her own, remarkably apt compound phrases rather than adopt whatever English word existed for a thing. The muskrats that scuttled across the trails were, in her parlance, “beaver-mice,” and the serviceberries we plucked from the bushes between tasks were “blueberry-pears.” If you have ever tried a serviceberry, you will recognize this as the perfect representation of their taste and granular texture.
My student wasn’t unusual in giving serviceberries a new name; they are known by different names wherever you go. Like many plants, they get named by whatever was most important to the namer. When the serviceberry blossoms were most useful to indicate when the shad would be running up river in spring, they were “shadbush,” “shadwood” or “shadblow.” When it was most critical to know when they would ripen in some particular place, evidently, “Juneberry” (though they are decidedly July ripening here in New England). And if you wanted to call out what sets their taste apart from other summer berries, “chuckley pear.”
I have multiple sorts of berries growing in my yard, most of which turned up without being planted by me. Raspberry canes arch themselves into the grass, making constant incursions, and some strawberries showed up one year inexplicably. We have a few highbush blueberries languishing among the pine-oak woods, along with several berry types of little interest to human palates. The plants that make berries that humans do not find tasty get named for things other than their fruits. The Virginia creeper vine is named for its behavior rather than the berries it makes, which are toxic to us. Same for pokeweed, bittersweet and deadly nightshade. Their names call out what matters to us, but the birds who can eat the berries without any harm likely call them by different names in their tongues.
The botanical definition of a berry is a bit technical and is about what part of the plant’s ovary grows into the fleshy, edible bits, and about just how many flowers and ovaries are involved. These technical points mean that some fruits we call berries really aren’t (blackberries), and some fruits we don’t think of as berries actually are (eggplant). Our expansive use of the term includes some very un-berry things, like the modified seed cones of juniper trees and yew shrubs, these last being the bright red “bird berries” about which many a nervous grandmother warned many a heedless child. Certainly mine did.
What, then, is the essential character that makes us call something a berry? Partly it’s color, often deep red or purple, or nearly black. The barely contained juice in a taut bundle just this side of rot. The tendency, compared with more durable and resilient fruits like apples, to bruise and smash. They draw attention, bright red or dark as an ink spot against the green foliage. Most of the time, plants are busily trying not to be eaten. Thorns, spikes, stinging hairs, unpalatable chemicals circulated through the leaves and stems. But berries are deliberate seekers of their own destruction. The seeds are bound up in a packet bright as a gem seeking passage through an animal’s digestive tract and deposit in far-flung parts. The fruit ripens, goes from pallid to blushing, and bruises deep. They run a double transit: in the darkness from end to end through someone’s gut, and to wherever the owner of that gut can get to in that span. Their time passes quickly, and they don’t keep.