June 2, 2014 /
Timothy Hoagland

Tree of the Month: Serviceberry

Let us take a trip through the seasons with the serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.)

In early spring, before most plants have shown signs of life, the long and slender pink-red buds begin to swell and then burst into a dazzling show of fine white flowers against an otherwise barren grey backdrop. The flowers give way to petite green oval leaves that droop slightly. But we soon get color once again when in early June, where flowers once were, berries of pink, purple, and blue brighten up the world as they ripen. The berries attract birds of every color and are a choice food source while they last. But even with the berries all gone by August, the tree will continue to provide an elegant green backdrop or focal point to the setting it is in. A number of species of butterflies can be seen using this species as its host. When autumn rolls around, get ready for one last firework display of color as this tree erupts in every hue of burgundy, orange, fuchsia, yellow and a rusty red. Their reserves spent and nutrients reabsorbed into the tree’s roots, the leaves fall to the ground and leave a colorful carpet for autumn walks. The serviceberry tree is truly one of year-round interest.

The serviceberry could be the right choice for your landscape and a home gardener may be pleased to find out that there is a serviceberry for every need. In the wild woods and fields, there are dozens of species native to North America. The landscape industry has produced a number of very attractive, productive, and low-maintenance cultivated varieties. From a 6 foot clumping shrub to a 40 foot elegant tree, you can find the serviceberry variety to fit your space. The national champion is over 70 feet tall! Along with the great diversity of forms, there is also great diversity in the names used for this venerable plant. Along with serviceberry, it is called: Juneberry (for when the berries ripen), Shadbush (as the shad fish would travel upstream at the time the flowers were out), Sarvis (used in the hills of Appalachia and the south), Saskatoon (from the northern prairie and Canada), as well as numerous other locally used names. In the wild, this plant has species that grow on the salty sea shores, the craggy mountain sides, the fire-prone dry forests, and the boggy marshlands. In the cultivated landscape, the service berry is a hardy tree that can stand up to shock and mediocre soil quality. I have seen rows of this tree planted right next to the street perform admirably and fruit well.

Along with avid ornamental gardeners and native plant nutcases, the serviceberry has captured the hearts of edible plant geeks. It’s is an easy-to-grow alternative to the blueberry and yields a very similar fruit. I have described the flavor as an almondy blueberry. They go great in pies and are also delicious fresh out of hand. As a June producer, the serviceberry gets the harvest season rolling early. Some Native Americans would include serviceberries in their recipe for pemmican, an energy dense mixture of meat, fat, and fruit used to sustain them through winter and on long trips. Many parts of the plant were also used medicinally. Modern nutritionists have found the berries to be highly nutritious.

Being in the rose/apple family of plants, the serviceberry is subject to a number of associated plant diseases. For the most part, a well-maintained serviceberry should remain vigorous and resist these diseases. The Cedar rusts (particularly Cedar-Hawthorn rust and Cedar-Quince rust) are some of the bigger nuisances for serviceberries and can ruin a portion of the berry crop as well as blemish the leaves of the tree. Planting close to cedars and junipers is not advised.

For fruit, for beauty, for wildlife; the serviceberry is an excellent tree for the cultivated landscape. We hope to see their white flowers blooming in more yards throughout the District.

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