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Gardening: Serviceberry is staple of springtime

This time of year the hills and river banks in the Inland Northwest are ablaze with the white flowers of our native serviceberry. By the end of June the shrubs will be covered with tasty edible berries; that is if the birds don’t beat you to them. (Pat Munts / The Spokesman-Review)
This time of year the hills and river banks in the Inland Northwest are ablaze with the white flowers of our native serviceberry. By the end of June the shrubs will be covered with tasty edible berries; that is if the birds don’t beat you to them. (Pat Munts / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s hard to miss nature’s celebration of spring on the hills and along the rivers of the Inland Northwest.

Everywhere you look you see the white flowers of our native serviceberry in full bloom. From rocky open areas to the banks of local streams and at the edges of forested areas, this shrubby native plant is aglow with white fireworks. In late June it will be loaded with large edible purple berries.

Serviceberry is native to many parts of North America and is made up of dozens of species of the Amelanchier genus. Our Inland Northwest native is Amelanchier alnifolia. If using the Latin scientific name of the plant has you thinking what the heck does that mean, there is a very good reason for it.

A. alnifolia is a classic example of how common names can confuse people as to which plant you are talking about. It has about a dozen common names including dwarf shadbush, western juneberry, saskatoon, Pacific serviceberry, alder-leaf shadbush, western serviceberry and alder-leaved serviceberry. Each of these names is used in a particular geographic area from the Pacific coast up into Canada.

The plant is a multistemmed shrub that averages about 15-feet tall but has been known to reach 40 feet under good growing conditions. After blooming, the plant produces a lot of dark blue and purple berries around the end of June that can be eaten fresh or made into jam. The berries are an important food source for many birds and animals. Native Americans would combine the berries with dried meat to produce pemmican, which served as an important storage and traveling food through the year. The hard wood of the branches was used to make shafts for hunting tools.

If you are looking for the perfect landscape shrub, the serviceberry might just do the trick. It is drought tolerant, hardy to USDA Zone 4 and will do well in almost any type of soil except clay.

Its light and airy vase shape is easy to fit into a landscape plan and it has a moderate to slow growth rate, so it doesn’t overwhelm its neighbors quickly. It grows equally well in the full sun and in the filtered shade of other trees. It is not prone to many insect or disease issues, although I have noticed some fire blight in the shrubs around me.

Plant breeders have noticed the plant’s attributes and have been creating crosses between different serviceberry species to enhance its traits. Most notably are the cultivars that highlight the flowers and the fall leaf color. Some of the best-known cultivars include Autumn Brilliance, Rubescens and Strata.

Autumn Brilliance, also known as apple serviceberry is the most commonly available species at nurseries. It is a cross between two eastern species and is best known for its white flowers followed by brilliant red and orange foliage in the fall. This cultivar isn’t as drought tolerant as our native serviceberry, so it will need water during the hottest part of the summer.


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