Missing plants: Serviceberry

Of all the plants that used to be common in the northeastern United States but have gone missing, serviceberry is the one you most need to know about.

Serviceberries belong to the genus Amelanchier (pronounced am-e-lank-er), which includes around 30 species of tall shrubs and small trees, all but two native to North America and all very much alike, with small leaves, white flowers, and edible purple berries. Different species range in height from six to twenty-five or thirty feet. They are the earliest ornamental shrubs to bloom, and they are very ornamental indeed—they produce elongated clusters of pure white blossoms in mid-April (see photos below). At that time, their delicate flowers should adorn the edges of the woods throughout the northeast. They are also the first berries to ripen, and through the month of June, birds should be feasting on their abundant berries.

Serviceberries, like many shrubs, normally grow in openings in the woods or along the edges of the forest. Serviceberries are successional plants—in other words, when this area was forested, they would pop up whenever a forest opening appeared, and they would be shaded out as the taller forest trees grew up. They would persist only in areas where tall trees do not grow, such as along stream banks or in swamps. Many shrubs fill this same ecological niche—elderberries and several species of dogwood and viburnum, to name just a few. Most of them, like serviceberries, are now rare or have disappeared entirely, crowded out by alien invasive plants.

We know that serviceberries were once very common because we have so many different names for them. Shadbush and shadblow refer to the fact that they bloom in early spring when the shad run in the streams—or used to. Juneberry refers to the time they set fruit, as does serviceberry: In colonial times, these shrubs fruited when the rivers became navigable and traveling parsons could reach the backcountry to perform wedding services. Another explanation the name is that early explorers thought the plants were related to Sorbus species, a large group that includes mountain ashes. In Canada they are called Saskatoon berries.

The berries look like small, purple apples (Amelanchiers are closely related to apples). They are edible to humans—the fruit is grown commercially in some parts of the midwest and Canada—and delectable to birds. The berries grow in clusters, but as with many wild fruits, they ripen one at a time. Each fruit starts out green and changes day by day through dull pink, bright pink, red, and finally purple. As the first fruits start to turn color, the birds start checking out the berries. Large birds like cardinals, robins, catbirds, and jays seem the most interested. I have a mature bush, full of fruit, right outside my back door, and this year the bird surveillance began on Tuesday, June 4. I saw a catbird busy in the bush; when it flew away, I checked the berries, and sure enough, a few were bright pink. Each evening, during the brief season, I look for almost-ripe fruit, and each morning, when I check again, the ripe fruit is gone. The early birds get the berries.

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Serviceberries are pest-free and lovely in all seasons. Their spring flowering is brief but exquisite. Here is a sequence of photos taken in April:

Serviceberry buds beginning to swell in early April.Two days later--leaves opening.

Almost open.

In fall, the leaves turn a variety of bright colors, depending on the species, and the bark of mature plants takes on a silver-gray color. As long as they get at least a half- day of sun, they will fruit abundantly (the plants do well in shadier areas, but they produce less fruit). They can be grown as part of a shrub border or as specimen plants. Some want to be small trees and some want to be many-stemmed shrubs, so be sure you get a species that’s right for your site. Two or three years after you plant your serviceberry, when the birds start eating the fruit, you and they will be helping to restore the native seed bank.

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