April 2023: Serviceberry
Homegrown Habitat’s native plant for April is serviceberry, which blooms throughout Conneticut’s woods this time of year. Homegrown Habitat is written by Sarah W. Middeleer, a landscape designer whose work focuses on ecology and designing for wildlife. She serves as vice chair of the Connecticut Audubon Board of Directors.
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Serviceberries adorn themselves in clouds of delicate white flowers in April, before their leaves emerge. But these small trees continue to offer new delights throughout the year.
Their delicious, berry-like fruits ripen colorfully from greenish-pink to red, blue, and purple (they are delicious to animals and to people). Their open branching pattern and fluttering leaves create soothing, dappled summertime shade. The fall foliage is a gorgeous range of orange, red and purple. And serviceberry’s fine texture and silvery stems, particularly beautiful dusted in snow, lend an elegant presence to the winter landscape.
Common names include shadbush and shadblow, due to the timing of the flowers in conjunction with shad migration in Northeastern rivers; Juneberry; and servicetree–this name perhaps because the flowers would have been available for funeral services once the soil had thawed enough for burial.
Serviceberries form a large group of species within the genus Amelanchier, several of which are native to southern New England. They are typically large shrubs or small trees. In the wild, some species may grow to 40 feet high, but in cultivation most serviceberries max out at around 25 feet high.
Even experts have trouble telling different serviceberry species apart, in part because of the species’ tendency to interbreed. For our purposes we will explore them mostly as a group.
Often for sale these days are hybrids, such as Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance,’ which is a cross between A. arborea (downy serviceberry) and A. laevis (smooth serviceberry). It grows 15-25 feet high and wide and is usually offered in both multi- and single-stemmed forms.
Serviceberries are of very high value to wildlife. Birds may nest or seek cover in them and will devour the fruit (my serviceberries’ fruits never ripen fully before the birds polish them off). Orioles, cardinals, thrushes, catbirds, titmice, woodpeckers, waxwings, and robins are among the many bird species who thrive on serviceberries.
The 114 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars (including eastern tiger swallowtail, viceroy, red-spotted purple, and striped hairstreak butterflies; and luna, polyphemus, io, blinded sphinx and cecropia moths) who dine on serviceberry leaves also serve as critical food for baby birds. Serviceberry flowers offer a good source of pollen and nectar for early emerging pollinators. Fortunately, though, these trees are reported to be unattractive to deer.
Serviceberries are remarkably adaptable to different conditions, including full sun to part shade and soils that are quite moist to rocky and dry. The book American Plants for American Gardens, which catalogs native plants according to the communities in which they typically grow (and how to utilize them in designed landscapes), lists serviceberries in five different natural settings: streamsides, three different types of forests, and coastal areas.
I have two serviceberries, one of which is on a dry slope that gets strong afternoon sun. The other is in a shadier location with deep, rich soil. In my experience the drier condition results in less dramatic fall color and earlier leaf drop, especially after droughty summers. The tree in deeper, damper soil produces better, longer fall color.
But these two serviceberries may well be different species, so I can’t be sure that these differences are simply related to site conditions. Nonetheless, I recommend trying to locate your serviceberries in moist, rich, soil, with perhaps a bit of afternoon shade.
Serviceberries are suitable for many uses in the residential landscape, including woodland or lawn edges, hedgerows, near streams or ponds, and specimen plantings. They are an excellent choice for pollinator gardens and children’s gardens. Given their smaller size, they can safely be planted relatively close to the house — say, near a patio or front walk. Serviceberries are especially effective against a backdrop of evergreens, where their white flowers, orange fall leaves, and pale-gray trunks stand out.
Companion plants for serviceberries vary depending on the site. For shadier, moist locations, consider underplanting them with wood anemone, violets, wild ginger, solomon’s seal, spring beauty, wild cranesbill, meadow rue, sedges, and ferns.
In sunnier, drier areas, serviceberries combine well with asters, goldenrods, wild columbine, butterfly milkweed, St. Johnswort, bush clover, blazing star, purple love grass, and big bluestem.
Native Americans are said to have prized serviceberry wood for arrows. This densely grained, hard wood has also been used to make tool handles, fishing rods, and walking sticks.
Please let us know about your experience with serviceberries or if you have any questions: email@example.com – we always love hearing from readers!
Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, The Living Landscape Designing for Beauty and Biodiverisity in the Home Garden, Timber Press, 2014
Michael A. Dirr, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics Culture, Propagation and Uses, Stipes Publishing, 2009
Edith A. Roberts and Elsa Rehmann, American Plants for American Gardens, 1996, The University of Georgia Press