The Amazing Serviceberry

Reader Contribution by Nan K. Chase
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In my lineup of edible landscape plants, the serviceberry plays a starring role. Yet for too many gardeners this plant is unknown. Are you ready to try something new and delicious?

A small tree or large shrub in form, and bearing many names, this American native plant is beautiful in early spring for its billows of lacy white blooms and beautiful again in autumn for blazing color on the pleasing rounded leaves. In the late spring – serviceberry is sometimes called Juneberry – the fruit makes for some magical eating, as thousands of delicious purple-red berries ripen. 

On a day like today, in mid-May this exceptionally warm spring of 2012, I can pick a gallon of the berries in about an hour. And it’s important to pick the highly nutritious berries as soon as you find them, for birds love them too, and the berries don’t stay on the tree much more than one or two weeks a year. 

Eat them raw; they taste much like blueberries, with an almost dry, grainy texture and a mild, sweet flavor. Bake them into pies, puddings or muffins. Dehydrate them like raisins. Make serviceberry jam or serviceberry ice cream. Or…drum roll, please…process serviceberries as pasteurized juice, mead or wine, or simmer the juice to make serviceberry syrup to use on pancakes or as a mixer with vodka and soda.

Lucky me. My house sits across the street from the back of a bank parking lot, and several serviceberry trees were evidently planted a decade or so ago to help form a landscaping screen. I watch those trees all year, and when the berries ripen I only have to cross the street with a bucket to harvest the fruit. 

Where do they grow? Well, practically anywhere. As native species, serviceberry trees come in many regional variations, and can thrive from the Canadian border regions to the Southern Appalachians, from the West Coast to the East Coast. And more good news: they can grow well in wet conditions and in considerable shade, as at the edge of woods or in open forest.

The many forms of serviceberry make up the genus Amelanchier; as members of the rose family they are related to such plants as the many hawthorns and the crabapples, cherries, plums, and peaches. Isn’t it amazing that we don’t know serviceberry better?

Here are some of the names and types of serviceberry: Sarvis or sarvisberry (that’s Southern, and sounds so nice), shadblow, shadbush, shadwood, saskatoon, the widely planted downy serviceberry (same as shadblow), roundleaf serviceberry, wild pear, sugarplum, wild plum, Alleghany serviceberry and Pacific serviceberry. They range in height from four feet in the uncommon running serviceberry, to a maximum of 60 feet for the downy serviceberry.

I’d like to share two places to order serviceberry species, in case your local garden center doesn’t stock them. Raintree Nursery, offers two varieties billed as service tree. I haven’t ordered serviceberry or service tree from Raintree, but I have had very good luck with everything else I have bought from them and put in the garden. Also try the wonderful Oregon stock source One Green World, which offers what look like two excellent kinds. I have loved buying plants from One Green World over the years. They are vigorous and well packaged for shipping.

Last, be patient. Once a serviceberry starts bearing, it can be highly productive. But it may take a few years to start getting fruit.

Nan K. Chase is the author of Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape.