Tree of the Month, July 2024

Amelanchier

Serviceberry, Sarvisberry, Shadbush, Shadblow, Juneberry

by Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living

Three Serviceberry trees. Photo by Mort Schmidt.

Serviceberry held a special place in the heart of our ancestors, because it was one of the first fresh fruits of spring. It’s revered today because it lends itself well to landscaping and it provides a fruit that attracts Cedar Waxwings and other birds. 

Oil painting of Cedar Waxwing by Nancy Schmidt.

Serviceberry is arguably not a tree, but a shrub. The U.S. Forest Service defines a tree as a perennial plant that: 

  • Is made of woody material,
  • Has a mature height of 13 feet and a trunk diameter of 3 inches, and
  • Has a single trunk.

Many Serviceberries meet this definition, but many have smaller heights and diameters, and multiple trunks. Banana trees aren’t trees either, by this definition, because they lack a woody trunk, which is why they collapse in freezing temperatures. And River Birches aren’t trees because even though they can reach a height of 80 feet and provide quality lumber, they typically have multiple trunks. But it’s hard to say they aren’t trees, just because they don’t easily fit our schemes. Nature doesn’t care about our classification systems. 

The most widespread Serviceberry in the U.S. is the Downy Serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea. And in Ohio, it is “Our only common and widespread species…”, according to Lucy Braun’s The Woody Plants of Ohio. Braun also says of Serviceberries, “Authorities differ in the interpretation of species, which are difficult or impossible to identify without flowers, immature fruit, and mature leaves”. Numerous sources agree, and point out that Serviceberries hybridize between species, making the identification at species level all the more difficult. I do not attempt to distinguish them here, but my descriptions are based primarily on A. arborea (Downy Serviceberry). 

Serviceberry leaves are oval, often somewhat pointed, and approximately 2.7 inches long, 1.2 inches wide, with fine teeth. Serviceberry, like most Ohio hardwoods, has simple leaves, alternately-arranged, with pinnate veining. Simple leaves are attached to the tree individually, whereas compound leaves have multiple leaflets sharing a stem, for example, Poison Ivy, with its consistent groupings of three leaflets. Alternate leaves are not attached directly across from each other, compared to opposite leaves that are attached at the same distance from the end of the stem, And pinnately-veined leaves have a single primary vein with secondary veins attached at different points, while palmately-veined leaves have multiple primary veins attached at the stem, with secondary veins attached to them. 

Left to right – Alternate, opposite, pinnate, palmate. Illustration by Mort Schmidt.
Downy Serviceberry leaves. Photo by Mort Schmidt.

Like many plants with flowers of 5 petals, Serviceberries belong to the Rose family. The five white or occasionally pink petals resemble those of Apple, a close relative, but Serviceberry petals are more slender. The small fruits are also like apples and rose hips in that they consist of pomes. These pomes have stems that go through the fruit and emerge as a calyx that resembles a 5-pointed star. The calyx is present long after the fruit disappears and can be helpful in identification. 

Serviceberry fruits mature in June, hence the common name, “Juneberry”. They’re loved by animals and people for being one of the earliest fruits of summer. The red to purple fruits grow to a diameter of 0.2 to 0.4 inches and contain 5 to 8 small seeds. Serviceberries are readily propagated by seed, due to their popularity among birds, but they also spread via suckers. 

Serviceberry flowers, fruits, and calyxes. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

A. arborea bark is typically smooth, dark gray, and faintly striped, but can develop furrows on larger trees. Serviceberry often has multiple trunks, but can be more tree-like with a single trunk. 

Serviceberry trunks. The gray-striped bark on smaller branches and trunks is especially diagnostic. The middle photo shows a mature Serviceberry with a trunk diameter of several inches that had shallow furrows. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Downy Serviceberries are generally between 15 and 40 feet tall, with a trunk diameter up to 8 inches – smaller in the case of multi-trunked shrubs. But Ohio’s Champion, located in Harrison County, has a height of 96 feet, a trunk diameter of 1.4 feet (53 inches CBH – Circumference at Breast Height), and a crown width of 41 feet. 

ID Summary: Serviceberry can be distinguished by its small, finely-toothed oval leaves, gray-striped bark, and in spring, its flowers with five slender petals. 

Serviceberries are found in every state but Hawaii, but Downy Serviceberry predominates in the eastern U.S. They are found in a variety of soils and sunlight, but require good drainage. 

Range map of Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea – the most common species of Serviceberry in Ohio). Image from U.S. Geological Survey.

Serviceberry wood has a Janka hardness of 1,800 lbf and a density of 0.83 g/cc, according to the Wood Database, compared to the median of my list of 73 Ohio trees of 1,075 lbf and 0.64 g/cc. This hardness is on par with American Hornbeam, (Carpinus caroliniana), aka Ironwood, which, as the name suggests, is exceptionally hard. But its use is limited to tool handles and other small objects that require little rot resistance. 

Serviceberry’s primary use today is in landscaping. Its typical small size, tolerance of urban environments, and attractive flowers and berries make it a good choice for many spaces. According to the Columbus Street Tree Inventory, Serviceberries of various species are the 33rd most common trees in Columbus, Ohio. 

Some people also relish the berries, at least when they can beat the animals to them. The fruits are used to make pies, muffins, jams, and occasionally, wines. William Carey Grimm’s The Illustrated Book of Trees, and other sources, indicate that the fruits of Allegheny Serviceberry (aka Smooth Serviceberry, A. laevis) are larger and better tasting than those of Downy Serviceberry. David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Guide to Trees agrees that Downy Serviceberry is relatively tasteless, but it also says that Allegheny Serviceberry is, “Very similar to Downy and sometimes considered the same species”. However, “All Amelanchier produce edible fruit, so exact species identification isn’t important to the forager”, (Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, July-August 2019). Several sources indicate that Serviceberries taste like Dr. Pepper and some nurseries sell them as “The Dr. Pepper Tree”. 

According to the Native American Ethnobotany Database, the Cherokee used Serviceberry bark infusions to treat worms and diarrhea, and as a spring tonic. They also used the berries for food. The Iroquois used bark infusions to treat gonorrhea, and they used the berries as a blood remedy and as a treatment for mothers after childbirth. The Blackfoot people also ate Serviceberry fruits.

Serviceberries are especially attractive to birds, and at least in Central Ohio, draw Cedar Waxwings. Various mammals, including squirrels, rabbits, foxes, bears, and deer also consume the fruit.  

The source of the name, “Serviceberry” is unclear. Grimm’s The Illustrated Book of Trees, says that, “Additionally, the common name, service-berry, comes from the early settler doctors who offered their services to expectant mothers, many of whom delivered in the spring, which coincided with the tree’s flowering”. Several sources suggest that Serviceberry is named for the fact that in earlier times, burial services were postponed until spring when the ground was thawed, and that coincided with the tree’s flowering. Most agree that the names Shadblow and Shadbush are attributable to the coincidence of the tree’s blooming with the running of shad fish. 

In any case, Serviceberry is an attractive tree that deserves consideration for anyone who wants a tree or shrub of modest size with attractive flowers and fruits. As always, I recommend planting native species. 

Serviceberry fruits and leaves. Image by Mort Schmidt.

One Comment

  1. This is a most enjoyable article. I learned so much and really appreciated the consciousness of the writer. You wrote with clear intentionality to Native ways that reflect the values and culture of Simply Living. Thank you kindly for your service to the Serviceberry!

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