Of all the woody plants in our garden, not counting the old red oaks and yellow birches that were here before us, nor the smaller birches and cherries that have have claimed their place along the garden’s edges in our time, the serviceberry that grows between the south side of the house and the perennial bed is most important in nurturing our garden’s wildlife. In early spring, small native bees just out of their winter nests pollinate the tree’s white flowers. In summer, we pick our share of the tree’s fruits, always in small handfuls of only the ripest berries as we walk by the tree on our way to the vegetable garden, all the while knowing that we are sharing the harvest with resident catbirds, robins, and wood thrushes. And by summer’s end, a horde of insects has mined or chewed the once-fresh apple-green leaves to tattered remnants.
Our serviceberry may be the Allegheny serviceberry, Amelanchier laevis, one of several species native to the northeastern U.S., one among many in a very confusing genus, so we are not absolutely sure of its species. It is either A. laevis or A. canadensis, the shadblow serviceberry, so called because its spring flowering signals the shad run. We knew which species it was on the day we planted it several years ago, but since then our individual memories have taken different roads. I think it is A. laevis, Marjorie remembers it as A. canadensis. In the end it does not matter, they are both invaluable species when it comes to nourishing wildlife.
Our tree, if it is A. laevis, belongs to a group of small deciduous multi-trunked trees found in thickets, open woods, and wood margins, always conspicuous in April when their slightly fragrant 5-petaled flowers open just as the leaves are unfolding, white clouds come to earth. Never more than 40 feet tall, most trees of this species typically grow 15 to 25 feet tall.
The flowers of all species of serviceberry (there are at least 20 species in the genus) give way to fruits that resemble blueberries in size and, some say, in color. Like blueberries, each serviceberry ripens in its own time with only a few in each cluster ripe on any early June morning (hence the alternate common name of Juneberry). The fruits are often used in jams, jellies, and pies, but such use requires netting of the tree before the berries ripen, thus depriving the garden’s wildlife of their share of the harvest. We choose to settle for eating our share fresh by the handful as we work in the garden.
And what of the taste of serviceberries? Marjorie compares them to highbush blueberries but chewier due to a thicker skin and the persistent calyx. I think they can’t hold a candle to the sweetness of dark blue, almost black, blueberries that fall from their pedicels with just the whisper of a touch. Thoreau, in his writings on wild fruits, dodged the question by describing the taste as “agreeable”. I would give them all to the birds if they would just leave the blueberries to us!
The young spring leaves of our tree, emerging just before the flower buds open, are covered with a pubescence that gives them a lovely soft gray-green color, a welcome harbinger of spring, evidence of an end to the season of perpetual ice and snow. Mature summer leaves are smooth and hairless. I have seen excellent orange-red fall color in serviceberries, but this is a rare occurrence with leaves that are subject to the same array of diseases that affect roses, including rust, fire blight, and powdery mildew. By summer’s close, the tree’s leaves have little left for show.
It is the wildlife value of serviceberry that we treasure. According to Douglas Tallamy, University of Delaware entomologist and wildlife ecologist, serviceberry supports 119 different species of moths and butterflies native to the United States as either a larval host or source of nectar. The list includes viceroy, striped hairstreak, and Canadian tiger swallowtail butterflies. And, as mentioned earlier, serviceberry is also a valuable early-spring source of nectar for native bees.
Serviceberry also supports a variety of birds and other wildlife including cardinals, hairy woodpeckers, cedar wax wings, thrushes, catbirds, Baltimore orioles, wild turkeys, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, foxes, and black bears. The later may not be on your list of desired co-occupants of the garden, but we infrequently see one lumbering along the woods line at the back of the garden and, once, on the back porch with its head buried in a galvanized trash can full of sunflower seeds intended for the birds. We store the seeds indoors now.
If you are interested in cultivating a garden in tune with nature, plant a serviceberry this spring. If you already have one, plant another one. You can never have too many of such an ecologically functional tree. Both A. laevis and A. canadensis, the two species likely to be found at your local garden center or nursery, are easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Serviceberries are tolerant of a somewhat wide range of soils, but prefer a moist, well-drained loam. Their small size recommends them to small gardens and I have even seen them grown in large containers on the patio.