The bees buzzing around my back yard know a good thing when they see it! They know that the little tree planted just outside my breakfast room is something special. But the bees are not there to admire the tree with its pretty five-petaled, star-shaped blossoms. They’re there along with the butterflies to feed on the plentiful nectar and pollen. Later on, around June, the blossoms will give way to sweet juicy berries. Then, the mockingbirds, bluebirds, finches, and other avian species will join the party.
So what’s so special about this tree? It’s a serviceberry – a native plant noted for its merits as a landscape plant and as a valuable host to a broad range of wildlife species. In the wild, serviceberries may be found growing in moist woodland sites and along streams. Their white to pinkish-white flowers are some of the first to appear in spring. Their berries, edible by humans and wildlife alike, resemble blueberries in size and color but taste sweeter. Delicious raw, the fruit is also used for jams, jellies, and pies.
The autumn foliage, which is characteristically orange to deep red with some shades of yellow or purple, is quite beautiful.
The botanical name for this lovely little tree is Amelanchier (pronounced Am-uh-LAN-kee-er). The Amelanchier genus consists of more than two dozen species of deciduous trees and shrubs, all but two of which are native to North America. Members of this genus can be found in every state except Hawaii.
Amelanchier has a variety of common names, which can be confusing. In the northern part of the United States and in Canada, it is known as Saskatoon — its native American name. In the eastern part of the United States, it is primarily known as serviceberry. According to legend, the tree was given that name in 19th century New England because it bloomed in April, when the spring thaw allowed roads to become passable and rural residents could once again attend religious services. For people who preferred to skip services and go fishing instead, the flowers appeared coincidentally when the shad migrated upstream from the ocean to spawn. So the name “shadbush” stuck. The plant was also dubbed “Juneberry” because June is when the fruit ripens. Regardless of what you call it, it’s a splendid little tree that deserves to be more widely planted than it is in the ornamental garden.
SERVICEBERRY SPECIES NATIVE TO VIRGINIA
Seven native species of serviceberry may be found in Virginia, according to Flora of Virginia. The most common species found in Albemarle County include:
- A. arborea (downy serviceberry). It’s called downy serviceberry because of the fine hairs that appear on the leaves and twigs in the spring.
This species has a rounded habit, is sometimes multi-stemmed and shrubby, and has ovate leaves that are gray and hairy when young and yellow to red in autumn. Fragrant white flowers open in mid-spring, followed by red-purple fruit. The tree averages 25 feet in height and 30 feet in width. The ample flowers and pollen resources attract pollinators in the spring. The early summer berries are edible by both humans and wildlife.
- A. laevis (Allegheny serviceberry). This species is closely related to A. arborea. To tell the two species apart, the unfolding foliage of A. laevis is a bronze color and the young leaves lack hair (the Latin name “laevis” means hairless). A spreading, sometimes shrubby tree, its ovate leaves turn from bronze in spring to mid-green in summer, then to orange or red in autumn. The white flowers in midspring are followed by sweet, blue-black fruit in early summer. A mature specimen averages 25 feet in both height and width.
- A. Canadensis (shadblow or shadbush). Whereas A. arborea and A. laevis look very similar in size and shape, A. Canadensis tends to be smaller (20 feet tall and 10 feet wide) and has a more upright, suckering, tightly multi-stemmed growth habit. This species occurs naturally in wet sites, bogs, and swamps and is more tolerant of clay soil than the other species. The oblong-elliptic to obovate leaves are white-hairy when young, becoming almost hairless when mature, and mid-green in summer, yellow to orange and red in autumn. The white flowers in spring are followed by sweet, black fruit.
- A. x grandiflora (apple serviceberry). In addition to a number of cultivated hybrids, many naturally occurring hybrids exist in the wild between Alleghany serviceberry (A. laevis) and downy serviceberry (A. arborea). Commonly known as apple serviceberries, the botanical name for the plants grouped under this cross is A. x grandiflora. As a group, these hybrids have the largest flowers of all the serviceberry species and do well in shadier growing conditions than the species as a whole. Most importantly, the hybrids in this group are widely sold because of their glorious orange and red fall foliage. A few examples of the hybrids available commercially include:
- ‘Autumn Brilliance’ – A vigorous and reliable grower. Faster growing and more resistant to leaf spot and fire blight than the species. Noted for its brilliant red autumn color.
- ‘Ballerina’ – An upright grower with spreading branches. Foliage turns red and purple in autumn. Highly resistant to fire blight.
- ‘Cole Select’ – One of the most colorful of the apple serviceberries, it has consistent brick red and orange autumn coloration.
- ‘Princess Diana’ – Relatively slow-growing with outstanding red autumn color. Often available as either a single trunk specimen or as a multi-stemmed specimen.
- ‘Robin Hill’ – Pink-tinged buds, which fade to white blossoms, differentiate this cultivar from other serviceberries.
- ‘Rubescens’ – A pink-flowered form. The dark pink buds fade to pale pink flowers.
- ‘Strata’ – Good horizontal branching potentially makes this selection a good alternative to dogwood in the landscape.
HOW TO GROW SERVICEBERRY IN THE ORNAMENTAL GARDEN
Serviceberry is an easy plant to grow. Plant in autumn if possible. Specimens planted in spring take longer to become established in the landscape and require more water initially.
- Soil — Plant in acidic, fertile, moist but well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. This plant will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, including clay and sandy sites.
- Light Exposure – Plant in full sun to light shade. Flower and fruit production will be better in full sun.
- Water – Keep root ball moist until the plant is well established. This is most critical during the first year of growth. Once the tree is well established, it should be reasonably drought tolerant. However, during a prolonged dry period, provide water occasionally to keep the tree from becoming stressed.
- Mulch — Spread a 3-inch layer of mulch over the root zone to regulate soil temperature and hold moisture.
- Pruning — Prune for a good branch structure when the tree is young. This tree typically grows as a multi-stemmed specimen but a single trunk can be maintained with some training while the tree is young. To maintain a tree form, prune the root suckers as they appear each year. Otherwise, the plant will revert to a shrubby growth habit. Per VCE publication on Pruning Schedule, to keep the overall size of the tree in check, prune the tree immediately after flowering (April through June). Prune before July because that’s when the plant sets next year’s buds.
SERVICEBERRY PESTS AND DISEASES
Serviceberries are closely related to apples and pears, all of which are members of the rose family (Rosaceae). They are therefore susceptible to many diseases affecting other species within this family, including fire blight and fungal diseases. Fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew and leaf spot, are generally not a serious problem for serviceberries and may be prevented by selecting resistant cultivars. Planting trees in full sun as opposed to shade may also make the trees less susceptible to disease. Depending on the severity, fungal diseases may generally be ignored, but prompt and thorough fall cleanup of diseased leaves will prevent the overwintering of fungal spores.
A number of insects, such as aphids, borers, Japanese beetles, scale and spider mites, may be pests of serviceberry. However, damage from these insects is generally not a serious problem. To help prevent pest damage, provide plenty of moisture to newly planted serviceberries while they are becoming established. Keep in mind that stressed plants tend to succumb to pests and diseases more than well-maintained, healthy plantings.
Serviceberry is seldom bothered by deer.
USES FOR SERVICEBERRY IN THE LANDSCAPE
Serviceberry is very versatile and plays many useful roles in the landscape. Depending on the natural tendencies of the plant and your preferences, grow it either as a large shrub or prune into a tree form with either single or multiple trunks. Some suggested uses for serviceberry in the landscape include the following:
- Plant the tree form as a single specimen and dress it with a simple mulch to allow the tree to take center stage.
- Under plant with low growing annuals, perennials, bulbs, or ground covers. Serviceberries cast light shade and their roots are not invasive. As a result, plants that prefer partial shade generally do well planted under them.
- Plant as an accent or anchor in a foundation planting, keeping the mature size in mind when judging how far away from other plants and building foundations to site the plant.
- Group several of them together to form a small grove. They look best planted in odd-numbered clusters.
- Incorporate into a mixed border with other small trees and shrubs. Again, keep in mind the mature size of all the plantings.
- Plant against a backdrop of evergreens. The heavier “weight” of the evergreens will provide a striking contrast with the serviceberries’ open, airy form, flowers, and foliage.
- Plant as a border or along property lines, paths or walkways.
- Plant as a windbreak. It is wind resistant and can help protect other plantings on windy sites.
- Use as a privacy screening around a deck or patio.
- Plant in a rain garden to help slow storm runoff. The roots will withstand soggy soil for a short while as long as the soil does drain.
- Plant along a stream as a buffer plant.
- Plant as a host plant for Lepidoptera, songbirds, pollinators, and as habitat for wildlife.
- Use in a naturalized setting, such as at the edge of a wooded area.
- Plant near black walnut trees if you are looking for small trees or large shrubs that can tolerate the alleopathic effects of juglone.
- Plant under or near power lines, where the tree’s small size will not be a hindrance.
This small but graceful native tree offers year-round interest to the landscape – white blossoms in spring, attractive medium-textured foliage and edible fruits in summer, colorful foliage in autumn, and handsome smooth gray bark in winter. Whether pruned into a small tree or grown as a large shrub, serviceberry is easy to care for, drought tolerant once established, and a versatile choice for the ornamental garden. Furthermore, as host to 58 wildlife and 35 bird species in Virginia, this plant clearly surpasses most other common landscape plants in terms of ecological benefits. What more can you ask of a plant?
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