One of the first trees to decorate Missouri's native landscapes in spring with billows of white flowers is Amelanchier. The latter is a small tree that quickly is eclipsed in seasonal grandeur in our woodlands by flowering dogwood. Most people do not know it as Amelanchier, since it has many other names. Some of its popular common names include serviceberry, sarviceberry, sarvis, Juneberry, saskatoon, sugarplum and shadbush. Reportedly, this somewhat obscure little tree has over 35 common names scattered throughout its region of origin.
The botanical name for this harbinger of spring is Amelanchier arborea which, in Missouri, probably is most commonly known as serviceberry. A member of the Rosaceae (rose) plant family, the genus Amelanchier contains species native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Highly heterogeneous, there is at least one species of Amelanchier native to every state except Hawaii. Taxonomically diverse, most species are multi-stemmed shrubs or small trees that range in height from several to as many as 50 feet.
Serviceberry produces blueberry-like fruits in pendulous clusters that ripen in June. However, most people never find them, since they are quickly devoured by birds. This often occurs before they fully ripen. The fruits are green when immature, then gradually turn rosy red (attractive to birds) before turning a reddish-purple color when fully mature. Like blueberries, fruits of Amelanchier are a rich source of polyphenol antioxidants and considered to be a health food.
Wild plum (Prunus americana) is a small native tree that flowers about the same time as serviceberry and often is mistaken for the latter. An easy way to tell the plants apart is to look at the bark. Serviceberry has smooth, greyish bark, while wild plum has shaggy bark. Both bear single white flowers. However, the petals of wild plum flowers are more oval in shape while those of serviceberry flowers are thinner and more elongated in appearance.
Although the fruits of serviceberry resemble blueberries when ripe, they have a distinctive flavor. The latter has been described as mildly sweet with a grainy texture. The edible seeds add a bit of almond flavor to the pulp. A staple in the diet of several Native American tribes, serviceberry fruits were used by American settlers in puddings, pies and muffins. Although their size may vary, they generally are smaller than cultivated blueberries. Additionally, both the seeds and the calyx of the fruits are more prominent than in blueberries.
The native species may be used in landscape plantings either as a specimen or in mass plantings. However, the species often sold for landscape use in Missouri is Amelanchier canadensis, or shadblow serviceberry. It also flowers in early spring and produces similar fruits. It is a slow growing tree that eventually may reach a height of about 25 feet. Tolerant of a somewhat wide range of soils, it thrives in full or part-sun exposures. Fall color of shadblow serviceberry leaves usually is an attractive deep gold, orange or red.
Serviceberry has very few problems other than being attacked by leaf-eating insects. Left uncontrolled, these insects make the trees unsightly by late summer but rarely do serious damage to the tree. Occasional disease problems include rust, leaf spot, blight and powdery mildew.
Amelanchier stolonifera is a low-growing species of Amelanchier which often is grown for its berries rather than for ornamental use. Because of its spreading growth habit, it commonly is referred to as running serviceberry or running Juneberry. It grows to a height of only about four feet and produces flavorful (although seedy) fruits in June.
Running serviceberry plants are not commonly available. However, they are worth ordering if you want to produce fruit for yourself, for the birds, or want a small tree that is an interesting addition to the landscape. Plants are available with single or multiple stems.
REVISED: February 21, 2017