Finding the Amelanchier

Serviceberry Tree

An unexpected benefit of a cool, lingering spring was a prolonged blossom time period for native amelanchier trees and shrubs, providing more time to enjoy their fleeting beauty and to observe their unfurling flowers and leaves.

When I became a Tree Steward, (now named Natural Resources Stewards), in the 90s, the love affair with exotic trees and shrubs was fading and native trees and shrubs were becoming appreciated and encouraged in home landscapes for their environmental benefits; good for native birds and insects, especially bees, and their natural hardiness.

I enthusiastically planted native plants on our property: mountain laurel, a few of the many native viburnums, and chokeberry. I even found a source for serviceberry seedlings that I planted around the edges of the woods and house. I have two large Amelanchier laevis, or Allegheny serviceberry trees; one is a many-stemmed clump near the garden and the other is a single-trunked small tree leaning over the front walk, right outside my office window. I have to duck to get by, but I can’t cut it down because it shows me the exact bloom time and when to look for them flowering along the roadsides. Now I just discovered more that I planted those many years ago; a tall one in bloom, and another little one buried under rhododendron foliage. Yesterday while pruning I found another tall one in overgrown shrubs in front of the garage, along with a tall chokeberry. Amelanchiers are a tough trees and shrubs, hardy throughout NH.  They conveniently grow in the understory along woodsy roadsides for easy sighting. Apparently, road salt does not harm them.

There are many species of Amelanchier trees and shrubs, as well as many names, making them confusing to identify.  The flowers are similar; they are in the rose family, and all have five long white petals.  But only two species are trees and listed on the American Forest Big Tree list. There are many regional North American Amelanchier shrubs that are easily confused with young tree species.

Because of my “window” tree, I watched the flower buds swell, which alerted me to begin monitoring the roadside trees during the first week in May.  This spring’s cold weather didn’t change the blossom time.  I know this because years ago I discovered the Hillsborough County champion tree when picking up my car after its annual inspection on May 6. I was told the car was out in the back lot. While wandering around, I noticed a small sapling loaded with pretty white flowers growing in the gravel. It was already getting ready to produce berries and seeds. Then I looked up and couldn’t believe my eyes. Far above my head, way out of reach, was a cloud of similar snowy white blossoms growing at the top of a tree.  I didn’t know of any tree that tall with blossoms on top.  I returned a few days later with my camera and clinometer to measure it for the UNH Big Tree program.  How quickly the surrounding hickories and maples had leafed out; I almost didn’t find it! As its blossoms faded it was becoming lost in the woods and it was difficult to site the top to measure it. We got it done just I time. A professional forester identified it as Amelanchier arborea

Over the years the parking lot became larger and larger, and was paved. Concerned about the expanding parking lot, I checked the tree again this year to see if it was still there. It is impossible to locate the Amelanchier arborea without the flowers, and it took two tries to find it. Fortunately, it is still a lovely cloud of blossoms high in the tree branches, far out of reach.

The cool May of 2020 that has enabled the blossoms to hold much longer and provided more time to enjoy their ephemeral beauty, as well as to observe the spring leafing out phase. During a hot spring, the flowers quickly come and go in just a few days; hardly time enough to remember to take photos. 

The difference in the color of the tiny opening leaves is one way to tell the two tree species apart.  I was hoping to find a low branch with emerging leaves to verify that it is Amelanchier arborea (downy serviceberry) with grayish-green leaves, and not Amelanchier laevis (Allegheny serviceberry) that has pretty, reddish, emerging leaves. Since they all are green when fully opened, early May is the best opportunity to accurately identify the two species, if you can reach the leaves!

Comparison of two species
Comparison of Amelanchier arborea & Amelanchier laevis

Another difference between these two Amelanchier trees is the taste of the June berries - the reason it is also called Juneberry. William Cullina, in his comprehensive book Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines, explains that Amelanchier arborea (or Downy serviceberry, the one growing at the car dealership) has “regrettably unpalatable red-purple fruits.” He notes that it has “cool gray bark laced with darker vertical striations.” That describes this tree.

Amelanchier laevis or Allegheny Serviceberry, according to Cullina, “produces delicious dark purple fruits.”  Since mine are this kind, I am eager to taste the fruit in June before the birds gobble them up. Both my trees have lots of flowers so I am expecting a bountiful crop of berries.  I have to admit I don’t recall ever seeing the fruit! The berries are small and quickly devoured by birds, meaning it is also an excellent wildlife habitat tree.

Berries
Berries starting to grow.

Amelanchier trees and shrubs and lots of cultivars are available through tree nurseries at astonishing prices. Right now I am inspired to try to grow them from seed.  I will keep my eye on my window tree to see when the birds start to eat them and try to gather some, not only to taste (all mine are edible Allegheny kind), but for seeds to plant. Your can monitor roadside trees and gather Juneberries yourselves to eat or plant. Cullina says they are moderately easy from seed.

Family: Rosaceae  Genus: Amelanchier   Tree Species: Amelanchier arborea & Amelanchier laevis Common names: Serviceberry, Shadbush, Shadblow, Juneberry