Wild Ones   Native Plants: Beyond the Birdfeeder. Gardening for birds and other wildlife. Serviceberry  
Serviceberry by Mariette Nowak

The serviceberry (Amelanchier genus) is a favorite of both native landscapers and bird lovers. It's a four-season winner with a froth of delicate white blossoms in early spring, luscious blue berries by June, apricot to reddish bronze fall color, and silver-gray bark for winter interest. The genus has about twenty species (botanists differ as to the exact number), consisting of small trees and shrubs, and thrives in every state except Hawaii. They hybridize freely in the wild, making identification to species difficult.

Of the three tree species, the Allegheny serviceberry (A. laevis), native throughout the Upper Midwest and Northeast, is considered a top choice for gardens. Shadblow serviceberry (A. canadensis), another favorite tree recommendation, is native to the Northeast. The third tree species, also popular for landscaping, is the downy serviceberry (A. arborea), native throughout the Midwest and Northeast. An excellent choice among the shrub species is Bartram's serviceberry (A. bartramiana), a species whose range extends farther north and east than any other Amelanchier. Some other shrub species include dwarf serviceberry (A. spicata or A. stolonifera) and round-leaved serviceberry (A. sanguinea), both of which extend their range south to Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio. Saskatoon serviceberry (A. alnifolia) is grown both as an ornamental and, within the last few decades, as a commercial fruit crop. A western shrub, its range extends into southern Alaska and south to Colorado.

Value for birds

Birds descend in droves to feed on ripening serviceberries, one of the first fruits of early summer. In my yard, flocks of cedar wax­wings are the first to come to gorge on the berries, but they are also a choice food for catbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, and brown thrashers. All told, thirty-five species of birds have been documented feeding on these delicious fruits. Without question, serviceberries are one of the top plants for birds.

Other wildlife values

Because they blossom as early as mid-April, serviceberries supply nectar for emerging insects when little else is available. Serviceberries also provide food for twenty-three other species of animals in addition to birds. Their berries are relished by chipmunks, squirrels, even beaver and bear. Browsers, particularly mule deer, but also white-tailed deer, moose, elk, and mountain sheep and bison, feed on the twigs and foliage.

Landscape notes

Serviceberry trees are perfect for small yards, since they usually grow only to about thirty to forty feet in height. In their native habitats, Amelanchiers are understory species and can tolerate some shade, but they flower and fruit better when grown in sunnier sites. The white blossoms of Amelanchier species are especially showy when planted with an evergreen background. The shrub species offer a beautiful accent beneath taller trees.

Also of interest

Many common names have been used for this varied group of woody plants, a testimony to their popularity and adaptability throughout the country. The name, serviceberry, is said to have several origins. It blooms early in spring as the ground thaws, signaling when burials and services for those who died during the winter could be carried out in pioneer times. Easter and its associated church services also usually occur when it blossoms. The names shadblow and shadbush come from the fact that the plants blossom when the shad, an Atlantic fish, come to spawn in coastal New England rivers. Another name often used is juneberry, which is quite appropriate since the berries ripen by mid June in most areas.

The sweet, distinctive berries make wonderful pies and jellies, if the fruits can be harvested before being devoured by birds. "To my mind and stomach," says noted horticulturist Michael Dirr, "a serviceberry pie is the rival of the best blueberry pie." The Indians used the fruit as a key component of pemmican, a dried food used when traveling, consisting of dried meat and grease, along with the berries. The fruits were also a major food source
for early settlers.

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Updated: Sep 24, 2010.