Monthly Archives: May 2013

Plant Profile: Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)


Flowers of Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). Photo by Ben Legler, all rights reserved.

This week I’m expanding on a short piece I wrote for WNPS a few years ago that appeared in Spokane’s newspaper, The Spokesman-Review (here it is in its original form).

This shrub (or is it a tree?) provoked much discussion on the WNPS listserv recently. See below for excerpts.

Why Serviceberry is choice:
A show of white flowers in spring, tasty dark blue berries in late summer, yellow leaves in fall, Serviceberry is more than just serviceable. But this deciduous shrub does serve, and admirably—adaptable to hillsides, roadsides, stream sides, and rock slides, not to mention open forests and against the garden fence.

What it does in the garden:
Serviceberry berries (actually “pomes” in botany-speak, like miniature apples) ripen in purplish-black clusters, to feed happy and showy birds such as orioles, goldfinches, and chickadees. Serviceberry’s rhizomes will knit together underground, making a nice stand and helping control erosion, but it’s not aggressive about it.

Where to see it:
Watch for the flash of its white flowers as you drive through hillsides and forests in spring. See dwarfed shrubs on talus slopes throughout the sagebrush-steppe.

The facts:
Serviceberry grows most often as an open, erect shrub, usually 6 to 12 feet tall unless browsed heavily by deer or elk or cattle. Once the shrub is well established, it can tolerate some munching. Happiest in sun, it can handle some shade. Be sure to give it a couple of summers of water when it’s first in the garden, but then Serviceberry can make it through drier times.

Berries of Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). Photo by Rich Old, all rights reserved.

Berries of Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). Photo by Rich Old, all rights reserved.

And, how about those berries:
Throw a mesh net over Serviceberry in late summer to save some berries from the birds. Then decide whether to eat them fresh, dry ‘em like raisins, bake them into a pie, boil up some jelly, or pound them with meat into pemmican.

The listserv discussion circled around the following questions in late 2012 and early 2013:

Where does it grow?
Mark Turner: Does Amelanchier alnifolia grow in Clark County? I’m reviewing distribution data for trees and shrubs and am puzzled about an apparent gap in Amelanchier alnifolia.

There are no herbarium records for it on either the PNW Herbaria Portal  or the WTU Herbarium web database views. It’s also missing from the WNPS Clark County list

It strikes me as odd that this common shrub would be found in all other Washington counties, all southern BC regional districts, most Oregon counties, and all northern California counties. If you live in Clark County, or visit it frequently, have you seen Amelanchier alnifolia there? Or is it indeed absent from the county?

Chad Stemm: Amelanchier alnifolia in Clark County? Yeah! It’s definitely here. The Thomas Lake site has my favorite one. It stands probably 30′ tall and almost as wide with multiple trunks merging into a base at least 3′ in diameter! It’s a beauty. It’s in the upland wooded area, now covered by maple and cherry canopy. I assume it wasn’t planted by humans being on a steep slope in that area. I’ll try to think of more examples. The NE part of Clark County (higher elevations, Lewis River watershed) is where I would expect to find lots of it.

Edward Alverson: The 2009 Native Plant Society of Oregon (NPSO) publication by John Christy and others, The Urbanizing Flora of Portland, includes Clark County within its study area. The publication references a specimen cited in Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest, collected by David Douglas from “near Fort Vancouver,” which is likely to have been collected from within the present-day boundaries of Clark County.

Also, for what it is worth, the USDA Plants Database shows Amelanchier alnifolia as being present in Clark County, actually in every county in Washington. The Plants maps don’t identify the source of each county record, but the BONAP Synthesis, which is the source of the Plants maps, does.

Also, the BONAP North American Plant Atlas is perhaps an easier way to access these county distribution maps than Plants, though the scale is not as detailed.

Rita Moore: I think I have seen it in at a local site (park) on the top of a hill of stone. Don’t remember the park name but it also had a lot of honeysuckle on it. There was also both monkey flower, Erythonium, and both wild strawberries at the site. Maybe even Fritillaria.

Brett Johnson: I can show you a bush in Pioneer Park on Mercer Island that I am reasonably certain is natural, it’s been there as long as I can remember. I’ve also salvaged it from the Mill Creek area and seen it in Cougar Mt, along the freeway down in Renton (sadly eradicated in one of the interchange overhauls), and in Covington. Unless it’s in flower, it’s amazingly easy to overlook.

Ben Alexander: Serviceberry is common and widespread in the South Sound area. It grows along roadsides and forest margins, and in the spring the slightly shaggy-looking white blossoms really stand out, making it easy to spot from the road. I consider the flowers to be typical signs of spring here. It is also one of the most common shrubs in the prairie/oak woodland areas.

John Browne, Jr.: At the I-5 rest area @93 milepost (heading south) there are a few down along the fence to the west that probably top 20′.

Hans Littooy: The Scatter Creek Wildlife Area is home to many Serviceberries.

Is it native?
Mark Turner: Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is native in all Washington counties, all Oregon counties, northern California, and southern British Columbia. It’s one of our most widespread native shrubs. It usually grows as a shrub, but can be a small single-stemmed tree.

Amelanchier utahensis is also found in parts of the northwest. A. pumila, sometimes considered a variety of A. alnifolia, is also northwest. There are certainly other species of Amelanchier that are not native to the northwest. A. arborea is east of the Mississippi. A. bartramiana is in northeastern US and Canada. A. canadensis is along the eastern seaboard of North America. There are more. See

Is it a tree or a shrub?
Ben Alexander: I have never seen it growing wild as a single-stem tree; the only tree-form serviceberries I’ve seen were nursery-grown.

Susan Buis: I remember once seeing a single-stemmed serviceberry tree, maybe 40 or 50 feet tall, blooming along a roadside in south Thurston county somewhere. I remember it because I had to study it to convince myself that it was indeed serviceberry growing that way. Maybe I can remember one other time, vaguely? Compare that to the thousands of shrubby serviceberries I have seen over the years and yeah, not very common.

Fred Weinmann : As of 1996 the champion serviceberry in Washington was at Beacon Rock state park–3.3 ft in C, 42 feet tall, 43 feet crown spread.

Helen Engle : I have three…they grow fast, wonderful among other trees, or a stand alone. My biggest has SEVEN trunks all in a clump.

Dave Noble : I have had two for about 10 years. Expect them and most other native shrubs to grow twice as large as seen in the wild. Mine are about 20 feet high now. They do not spread, except by seedlings. Maples are worse about this. Good, well behaved little tree, shrub.

Fran Brooks : I have 3 natives that were each planted 13 years ago. They are stunted by sun, drought and deer browsing but they are sturdy 5-7 feet tall with a main trunk and a few side shoots. More of a shrubby small tree.

Marianne Edain: There are some tree-form serviceberries on the steep slopes around Deception Pass, particularly on the Whidbey side, west of the highway. These were the first Amelanchier I had seen and I assumed this was the typical form. I still have trouble relating to the shrub form.

John Browne, Jr.: From my own sighting, it seems that the ones in the Puget Sound lowlands tend to be tree form more than any others. The ones from Central Canada are shrubby, the ones from higher elevations also tend to be that way, and from the heaviest bearing ‘trees’ that I’ve found (in the draws between Cle Elum and Ellensburg) they grew kinda like osoberry… branching out around 4-5′ and making a rounded crown to maybe 15′ or so.

On the Kitsap there are a number near the trail along the water at the park near Manchester, that are mostly like a dwarfed tree form. I imagine that browsing animals have something to do with their ultimate form, as well.

Where does it get its common name?
Michael Marsh: Someone on the list commented on our collective store of personal botanical memory. I wonder if anyone knows the source of the common name, serviceberry. Whenever I think of the name, I think of Robert Service.

Nancy Moore: According to my brother, the name originates from farmers. The serviceberry blooms when the cows are ready to be “serviced”. So if you want calves, call the stud service when you see the blossoms.

Helen Engle: That’s a good explanation, but what I want to know is how come it is almost universally pronounced “sar-vis” berry, rather than service berry?

Martha Jackson: I grew up knowing it as Saskatoon, a First Nations name for it. Don’t know the exact distribution of that name, but clearly it’s used (or used to be) in central Canada, hence the city in Saskatchewan.

Mark Fessler: There is mention of the name source for service berry in a book by William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization. He mentioned that in the Hudson Valley region the fruit set in spring when the ground was thawed enough to bury the past winter’s dead. Hence “service” and that region could also explain the pronunciation ” sar-vis “.

Helen Engle: Thanks Mark Fessler — I love to know those kinds of things about our flora. On a field trip in Idaho’s far west side a ranger told me they call this lovely spring-flowering plant the “shad-bush” because it blooms when the shad run comes up the river (or down the river?). Anybody know any more about that?

Martha Jackson: For what it’s worth, Wikipedia makes these comments on this plant’s common names:

“The name serviceberry comes from the similarity of the fruit to the related European Sorbus; it is also said that their flowers heralded the roads in the Appalachian mountains becoming passable, which meant that the circuit-riding preachers would be coming soon and church services would resume; also, that the ground was thawed enough to dig graves, and funeral services could be had for those who died over the winter.

“Juneberry refers to the fruits of certain species becoming ripe in June. The name saskatoon originated from a Cree Indian noun misC”skwatC4mina (misD skwatEmina, misaaskwatoomina) for Amelanchier alnifolia. The city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is named after this plant.

“Shadberry refers to the shad runs in certain New England streams, which generally took place about when the trees bloomed.”

Where have you seen Serviceberry growing? Do you consider it a tree or a shrub? And, most importantly, what are your great Serviceberry (Saskatoon, Juneberry, Shadberry) recipes?