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A Tree for All Seasons: Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp)

By Jim Lakin MD, Master Gardener

For the smaller yard, a smaller tree can be just the right touch. A forty-foot oak might be a bit overpowering, but a so-called “understory tree” can be the perfect landscaping accent to make the house appear to be a welcoming homestead. One excellent candidate is the native Serviceberry.

A Tree for All Seasons: Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp)

Over the next three months we’ll take a look at several native understory trees that could well fit the bill for that yard accent piece.  One excellent candidate is the Serviceberry


It actually is a group of about twenty different species grouped under the genius Amelanchier.  As you might expect such a heterogeneous group goes by several names in addition to serviceberry, including shadbush, shadwood or shadblow, sarvisberry (or just sarvis), juneberry, saskatoon, sugarplum, wild-plum or chuckley pear.  They comprise a group of deciduous-leaved shrubs and small trees in the rose family.  The complexity of genus and variety arise from Serviceberry’s propensity to hybridize.  So, much variation in size and coloration exists within the genus.  That’s why you should read the descriptive information carefully for whatever variety you select, to make sure its characteristics fit your needs. 



The origin of the name is up for grabs.  One story has it that Serviceberry started blooming in early spring at the same time that the valleys in the Appalachian Mountains became passable and circuit-riding preachers could again hold church services.  Another maintains that the blooming of Serviceberry announced the time that the thawing ground could again be broken so as to allow graves to be dug and those Dear Departed that had been in “cold storage” for the winter could be interred with proper services.  A less colorful, and probably more reliable, proposition has it that the genus was named after the European Sorbus, a genus also of the rose family with a number of similarities.  

Serviceberry's outstanding fall color


Amelanchier is native to most of North America, being more prolific in the Eastern states and provinces.  They can grow as either a shrub or tree ranging in height from 6 to 25 feet with similar widths.  Depending on the variety, they are hardy from Zones 2 through 9.  Blooming in early spring, most produce beautiful five-petal blossoms ranging from pink to white to yellow.  Although the blooms usually last no more than one to two weeks, the plant produces vibrant blue/green foliage which turns a brilliant bronze in the fall.  After blooming, clusters of berries form on mature plants, ripening to a deep red, then purple, during the summer.  The silvery bark provides a striking accent in winter.  Like most native perennials, Amelanchier is a great favorite of pollinators.


Serviceberry will form multiple stems


However, such a desirable plant is not without its needs.  Both deer and rabbits like to browse most varieties, so you should consider placing protective guards around the young trees for the first couple of years.  Many insects and diseases that attack orchard trees also affect this genus, in particular trunk borers and rusts. In years when late flowers of Amelanchier overlap those of wild roses, pollinators may spread fire blight. 

Serviceberries do well in full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight) to part shade (2 to 6 hours).  They do best in a moist, loamy, self drained soil that is a bit acidic.  Some species do well in boggie areeas and can look great near ponds or streams.  They look well in boarders to naturalized areas. 


Planting is done best in the fall or, preferably, in the spring.  A thick mulch applied around the plant will help it establish itself.  You’ll want to keep the mulch away from the bark itself, however.  Water well and apply a bit of all –purpose fertilizer in the spring and you should be well on your way to having a dazzling year-round garden gem.


Photo credits: Dan Mullen (1), University of Minnesota Extension (2,3)

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