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Superb Serviceberries

You can cook serviceberries into a sauce that’s deliciousserved with cheesecake, over ice cream, or spooned straight out of the pan. Photo by Adobe Stock/Severga

Whether you’re looking for a new fruiting specimen to include in your food forest, an appealing addition to your wildlife-friendly garden, or a useful and attractive ornamental for your yard, serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) will fit the bill. Also called “saskatoon,” “shadbush,” or “juneberry,” about 20 species of Amelanchier are found in North America. Nearly all of these are native, so anyone can find a cultivar to match their needs. Most are hardy to Zone 4, though some cultivars are tough enough to thrive in Zone 1.

Many serviceberry cultivars are good considerations for hedging material or for mixed beds with other shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Most cultivars also don’t require cross-pollination to produce fruit — a boon if your garden has limited space. The 1/4- to 1/2-inch round fruits are borne in clusters and ripen to a dark-purple hue. Despite the fruits’ resemblance to berries, they’re botanically pomes, like apples, and members of the Rosaceae plant family. Birds adore the fruit, and so do many humans! Their taste, reminiscent of almonds and blueberries, makes them popular in baked goods, and they can be turned into delicious jams, jellies, and syrups. They’re also delightful when eaten fresh. If you’re planning to grow serviceberry for its fruit, choose cultivars bred specifically for the best flavor. These include A. alnifolia ‘Pembina,’ ‘Northline,’ ‘Smokey,’ and ‘Regent.’

 

Birds love the fruits of these shrubs as much as humans do. Photo by Getty Images/Kirk Hewlett

Historically, serviceberries were an important part of the diets and medicines of several indigenous peoples in North America. They dried the fruit and mixed it with bison meat to form pemmican, a high-protein food used during traveling. They also added the dried fruit to soups. Tea was made from the berries, leaves, and twigs; the berries were used to treat liver ailments; and a concoction derived from the bark was employed as a remedy for stomach problems. Early European immigrants to North America realized the nutritional value of serviceberries and consumed the fruit to prevent scurvy. Today, serviceberries are valued as excellent sources of many vitamins and minerals; they contain more iron than blueberries, and are powerhouses for potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins C, B6, A, and E.

Serviceberries also provide ornamental value that can’t be overlooked. In early spring, usually early to mid-May, the beautiful clusters of white or pink five-petaled flowers are showstoppers, though the flowers typically only last a week or so before fading. The fruits are ready for harvest approximately two months after blooming, usually in midsummer. Autumn brings another treat when the leaves turn. Depending on the cultivar, fall foliage can be red, orange, or yellow. You can select cultivars, such as ‘Autumn Brilliance,’ for the maximum pop of fall color. The plant’s dark-gray bark also offers dramatic winter interest, particularly against snowy backgrounds.

 

Serviceberries are adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions, and can be sited in full sun to part shade. Photo by Adobe Stock/AndHub

Preparing serviceberry shrubs or trees for winter is generally an easy task. As with all your shrubs, ensure they receive enough water prior to freeze-up. Mulch the bases with wood chips or bark.

Siting Your Serviceberry

Serviceberry shrubs are usually available from nurseries as container-grown or bare-root plants. Bare-root plants need to be kept moist until planted. If they’ve broken dormancy and are leafing out when you get them, plant them as soon as the risk of frost has passed. Otherwise, it’s best to plant serviceberries in spring, after the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost has passed. Avoid planting in the heat of summer, as the shrubs may have difficulty establishing themselves in high temperatures.

Serviceberries are adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions, and can be sited in full sun to part shade. If you want high yields of fruit, however, strive for sun.

Plant serviceberries in fertile, well-drained soil, and don’t worry too much about the pH of your site. While they do best in a pH of 5.5 or higher, serviceberries are highly tolerant of a wide range, barring extremes on either end. Dig your planting holes just deep enough so that the root balls will be completely covered. There’s no need to amend the planting holes; a side-dressing of compost offered once per year, in spring, will cover the plants’ nutrient needs. (However, don’t dig in the compost, as the action may disturb the roots.)

 

Serviceberry bushes bring brilliant autumn colors, and you can choose cultivars specifically for their fall beauty. Photo by Adobe Stock/??????? ????????????

Consistent watering is an absolute must after planting, until the roots are established. After that, maintain a regular watering schedule if rainfall isn’t sufficient. Try to water from below; if workable for your site, drip irrigation is a good way to get needed moisture down to the roots of your serviceberry shrubs. They prefer consistent moisture, but don’t tolerate boggy conditions.

For the highest fruit production and best health of your serviceberries, keep up with weeding. Even the encroachment of turfgrass may be too much competition for the shrub, and could result in a reduced yield.

Perfect Your Pruning

Serviceberries don’t require much pruning in the first few years of growth, other than to remove diseased or damaged branches, which is typically done in early spring. However, if the branches of your serviceberries become dense and overgrown, prune out some of the stems to increase air circulation and minimize the risk of disease. Additionally, remove any branches that droop close to the ground.

Serviceberries in bloom are showstoppers. Photo by Getty Images/Marina Denisenko

Serviceberries will fruit 3 to 4 years after planting. For the best fruit production, prune regularly after the plants begin producing fruit. At that point, you can remove approximately one-quarter of all the old stems, focusing in particular on those that are too tall or have begun producing fewer fruits. In subsequent years, follow the same routine. Since the best fruit production for serviceberries occurs on 2-to-4-year-old branches, this pruning method will result in the oldest stems of your shrub still bearing plenty of pomes.

Pests and Other Problems

Serviceberries are susceptible to many of the same pests and diseases as other members of the rose family, including fungal leaf spot and powdery mildew. Fire blight is another potential issue; watch for blackened, girdled stems that may curve into a recognizable “shepherd’s crook” shape. Judicious pruning during a plant’s dormancy may stave off this deadly infection.

Aphids can be problematic as well, but can be controlled by spraying the plants with strong blasts of water from the garden hose, or, for minor infestations, by manually wiping aphids from the stems with a damp cloth or gloved hands.

 

From ornamental beauty to delicious fruits, serviceberries have a place in any garden. Photo by Getty Images/Dubasov Evgenii

Serviceberries may serve as a host for saskatoon-juniper rust, also known as cedar-apple rust. Since the fungus behind this disease requires two different host plants to complete its life cycle, removing the other host (likely a cedar or juniper tree) from your garden will help prevent further occurrences.

Tasty, eye-catching, and highly attractive to birds, pollinators, and other wildlife — this tantalizing combination is difficult to dispute! With so many species of serviceberry shrubs to choose from, why not give one a spot in your garden?

Successful Species

If you’re ready to add serviceberry to your garden, here’s a short list of suggestions.

Serviceberries are adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions, and can be sited in full sun to part shade. Photo by Adobe Stock/AndHub

Saskatoon serviceberry (A. alnifolia)

This multi-stemmed shrub can grow 10 or more feet tall. Saskatoons are best known for their delicious fruit; the cultivars of this species are the most popular for home gardens as well as commercial fruit production. A. alnifolia spreads via a rhizomatous root system, so give the plants plenty of room and be prepared for new ones to pop up periodically.

Eastern or Canadian serviceberry (A. canadensis)

This species also spreads by rhizomes. Eastern serviceberry can reach a height of up to 20 feet. If your soil is a bit waterlogged, this serviceberry can handle it. Look for cultivars with the tastiest fruits, such as ‘Micropetala’ and Rainbow Pillar®.

Allegheny serviceberry (A. laevis)

This is one of the larger serviceberry species, occasionally topping out at 45 feet, although some cultivars will be considerably smaller, about 25 feet. Popular selections include ‘Cumulus’ and the columnar ‘Snowcloud.’

Downy or common serviceberry (A. arborea)

These reach heights of approximately 25 feet, though they’ve been known to reach up to 40 feet in the wild. The fruit of this species is edible, and is particularly beloved by birds.

Serviceberry Sauce

This versatile sauce is best served with cheesecake, over ice cream, or spooned straight out of the pan. Yield: 2 cups.

 Ingredients

  • 2 cups fresh serviceberries
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2  teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

Directions 

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine serviceberries, 8 tablespoons of water, sugar, and lemon juice. Bring the mixture to a boil over low heat, stirring often.
  2. In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together cornstarch and 2 tablespoons water.
  3. Slowly stir the cornstarch mixture into the hot serviceberries. Simmer gently for about 5 minutes. The sauce will thicken as it cooks.
  4. Remove the sauce from the heat. Stir in the vanilla or almond extract.

Sheryl Normandeau is a Master Gardener and writer from Calgary, Alberta. She grows mostly vegetables, but also plants perennial flowers, and always has a few projects in the works. Read more about her pursuits on her blog, Flowery Prose.

Published on May 27, 2020

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