Native plants

The Serviceberry: Super Shrub

Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Le Soleil on July 17, 1999.

Sometimes, human beings have a tendency to look far and wide when the solution, the idea, even happiness, is within their grasp. It’s right there in front of us, but we can’t see it. Just as in everyday life, the same applies to horticulture. We import exotic plants in the hope of finding something extraordinary, whereas our indigenous vegetation offers a vast range of plants often superior to those we import. This is precisely the case with the serviceberry, a common shrub in Canadian forests.

Amelanchier ‘Martin’. Photo : Vegetolan

The Serviceberry

It can’t be said that the serviceberry has been entirely neglected by horticulturists. It’s easy to find in nurseries, but not as common as many other shrubs. Yet, in my opinion, it is quite simply the best shrub for our gardens.

You see, many shrubs offer only one season of interest, either spring flowering or autumn coloring, and others offer two. But I can’t think of any other shrub that offers interest 12 months a year, because it’s truly attractive in every season.

Photo: Gilles Ayotte

Early in spring, long before most other flowering shrubs, the serviceberry brightens up our gardens with its flowers. Small, white and numerous, they create a veritable storm of white in a landscape that is just beginning to green up. After the flowers, the leaves appear: oval, toothed, reddish at first, but turning green, they are pretty and decorate the shrub well, but nothing more.

Their relative lack of interest in summer (many other shrubs have more decorative leaves) is offset, however, by the berries, which quickly form and ripen from early July. Green as they form, they turn red, purple or black, depending on the species, and are delicious. If you don’t eat them, the birds will come in droves to feast, another “plus” in the garden.

In autumn, the green foliage turns red, orange and yellow, making saskatoon, along with vinegar, one of the most interesting autumn-colored shrubs.

Serviceberry leaf in autumn. Photo: ca2hill.

Beautiful, Even in Winter

Even in winter, when other shrubs have lost their appeal, its pale grey bark, beautifully marked with black lenticels, contrasts gracefully with the whiteness of the snow. Even its silhouette, often a little twisted, like a giant bonsai tree, is attractive.

Other Features

If four seasons of interest aren’t enough, take note of its other attractions.

First of all, it’s not only very resistant to insects and disease, but also to the cold, growing as far north as zone 2 (4 USDA). It tolerates all soils and does well in both partial shade and full sun, making it a truly all-purpose shrub.

The serviceberry can be used as the star shrub, alone in a landscape, or grown in a group… and a serviceberry hedge is a thing of beauty! This shrub’s only drawback may be that it’s a little slow-growing, but like all slow-growing shrubs, this makes its wood stronger and less prone to winter breakage caused by the weight of snow.

Several Species

There are several species of serviceberry, as well as a few hybrids, but they’re all very similar, so you can choose one or the other without making any mistakes. The main criterion is size.

Indeed, some species, such as the stoloniferous serviceberry (Amelanchier stolonifera), are naturally small, reaching a height of only 90 to 120 cm, and are ideal for restricted locations. Others, such as Canada serviceberry (A. canadensis) and large-flowered serviceberry (A. x grandiflorus) can reach 6 or 7 m in height and, if only a single stem is allowed to grow, even act as small trees.

Finally, if you’re particularly interested in the fruit, there are cultivars, generally derived from Amelacnhier alnifolia, which produce larger, more prolific fruit than wild serviceberries. These include the cultivars ‘Smokey’, ‘Honeywood’, ‘Thiessen’, ‘Success’ and ‘Martin’.

3 comments on “The Serviceberry: Super Shrub

  1. grrlrocks

    I’m in northern Wyoming, and just bought 2 small (1-gallon size) serviceberry shrubs – I’m looking forward to making jam in a year or two!

  2. Pretty good article. I just stumbled across your blog and enjoyed reading your blog posts. I am looking for new articles to get more valuable information. Thanks a lot for the useful information

  3. Thank you Larry for promoting our native Saskatoons. They are an ideal substitute for blueberries on the Prairies. Delicious and very nutritious they produce prolifically once established. We have 10 large freezer bags of berries in the freezer right now that came from just a couple of shrubs. The birds also helped themselves to the abundant harvest.

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