One of the most common, useful ornamental trees in both native and conventional landscaping, is the serviceberry. These tough little trees will fit in almost any landscape and look good in every season. In winter they have an elegant vase shape and subtly striped bark: in spring, cascades of white flowers: in summer, beautiful and edible purple fruits: and in fall, spectacular leaf color. Once you learn to recognize them, you will see them everywhere.
The serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) is a genus of woody trees and shrubs related to roses, apples and cherries, known by numerous other common names including Juneberry, shadblow or shadbush among others. There are serviceberry species native to every US state except Hawaii, and Chicagoland boasts 5 native species, suited to different habitats and spaces. Serviceberry trees like full sun to part shade, and adapt to most soil types as long as they are well drained. They are most commonly multi-stemmed but can be grown as a single stem tree as well.
Our most commonly used members of this genus are the downy serviceberry (A. arborea) and Allegheny or smooth serviceberry (A. laevis). These trees are very similar, but can be distinguished by the absence of hairs on the leaves of the Allegheny serviceberry. Both trees commonly grow 10-25 ft high (rarely up to 40 feet in the wild). Downy serviceberry prefers drier conditions than the Allegheny, and the Allegheny is widely believed to have superior fruit, which taste like a cross between a pear and a blueberry.
The most common cultivar of serviceberry planted around Chicagoland, ‘Autumn Brilliance,’ as well as several other named cultivars, are hybrids of these two species. We recommend planting straight species when possible to increase the genetic diversity in our landscapes, but the cultivars are much more widely available, and do provide most of the aesthetic and ecosystem benefits of the truly native trees.
Red Stem sometimes also uses the similar shadblow serviceberry (A. canadensis)which is native to the north, east and south but not actually in Illinois, because it tolerates somewhat more shade than the downy and Allegany serviceberries. Like the Allegheny serviceberry, the shadblow prefers a moister soil.
Serviceberry flowers provide nectar to a wide range of bees and other pollinators, and the fruits are popular among birds, including cedar waxwings, cardinals, robins and hairy woodpeckers, as well as people. Indigenous botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her essay “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance,” sees the serviceberry’s prolific qualities as an example of, and metaphor for, a different type of interrelationship between plant, animal and human.
“I think that the Serviceberries show us another model, one based upon reciprocity rather than accumulation, where wealth and security come from the quality of your relationships, not from the illusion of self-sufficiency. Without gift relationships with bees and birds, Serviceberries would disappear from the planet. Even if they hoarded abundance, perching atop the wealth ladder, they would not save themselves from the fate of extinction if their partners did not share in that abundance. Hoarding won’t save us either. All flourishing is mutual.”
In my own experience, picking serviceberries in parks and parkways around town always fosters unlikely interactions with my neighbors. People are shocked that such a commonplace landscape tree is capable of providing food, or think that anything they haven’t seen on the grocery shelf must be poisonous. The serviceberry illustrates other possibilities for our relationships with the landscape, in which we can nourish ourselves and our human and animal neighbors.