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Downy Serviceberry In Flower?

Spring has finally arrived

April 2023

An American robin eating fruit from the closely related Saskatoon berry.

“Serviceberry” refers to its tendency to flower as the ground thaws.

Nature has so many ways to announce spring’s arrival, from the flowering of daffodils, crocuses, and other early bulbs to the unmistakable calls of wood frogs and spring peepers, to the emergence of earthworms after a warm, soaking rain. One of the signs I most look forward to is the flowering of our earliest trees. Along with redbuds, red maples and others, high on this list is serviceberry.

Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) puts on an early show as it unfolds its prominent white flowers, either before or as its leaves unfurl. Most explanations of the common name “serviceberry” refer to its tendency to flower as the ground thaws, a time when burials and wedding services could finally be performed by traveling ministers. I admit I haven’t traced this explanation to primary sources, but it makes a good and plausible story.

A serviceberry tree in flower at Great Falls on the Potomac River.

This small tree is a member of a challenging genus that includes 20 to 40 species in the rose family. It can reach 40 feet tall, but left to its own devices, it generally develops as a multi-stemmed shrub. We planted a serviceberry in our front yard and have pruned it to seven main stems. And as I write this in late February, its flower buds are already loosening, promising an early spring.

Serviceberry (also called shadbush and Juneberry) tolerates full sun to part shade in Hardiness Zones 4-9. In the wild it’s primarily an understory species, preferring moist to dry upland forest sites with well-drained soil. It grows naturally from the Canadian maritime provinces to northern Florida, and west to Minnesota and parts of Louisiana. The fragrant flowers, each with five strap-like white petals, form in hanging clusters that stand out against the still mostly brown world. If successfully pollinated, red to purple edible berries develop. In “Native Plants of the Southeast,” Larry Mellichamp opines that serviceberries are “perhaps the finest edible wild fruit tree in eastern North America.” Hmm, maybe, though I’m partial to pawpaws myself. Either way, good luck gathering those fruits ahead of the birds! Serviceberries are coveted by waxwings, woodpeckers, thrashers, robins, grouse and other birds, as well as by mammals such as skunks, chipmunks and foxes. Seeds also have birds and their digestive tracts to thank as their primary means of dispersal.

Serviceberry leaves are one to four inches long, one to two inches wide, and finely toothed. They have good fall color, turning yellow, orange-red or red. The wood is hard and strong, but this tree’s real value is as an ornamental, as a source of early spring nectar and pollen for bees and other insects, and as a mid-season source of fruit.

Do you need another reason to plant serviceberry? That’s easy — you can do the insects, birds, and yourself a favor and plant it instead of the highly invasive Bradford pear, which blooms around the same time. The natural world will thank you!

Steve Carroll is a botanist and ecologist who speaks and writes about trees, gardening and the world of plants. He is the co-author of “Ecology for Gardeners,” published by Timber Press.