We look for the arrival of spring in robins and crocuses. But look in the understory of woodlands around April and you may see another messenger of spring: the creamy white blossoms of the serviceberry tree (Amelanchier spp.). The flowers often appear about mid-April, before many other flowering trees, making them quite conspicuous against the background of a still gray forest.
There are about a dozen Amelanchier species native to the United States, ranging from low-spreading shrubs to tall trees. Blooming in late spring or early summer, these flowering shrubs and trees provide a site for early pollinating insects. The insects, in turn, attract resident birds — tired of their winter diet of seeds — as well as provide fuel for spring migratory songbirds.
In fact, the word Amelanchier is an ancient Celtic word for apple. The fruits of native species were eaten by the Native Americans and are still sometimes collected. The sweet, reddish-purple fruits are an important food for songbirds, squirrels, bears and other woodland wildlife.
Besides being an excellent source of food for wildlife, serviceberries make excellent additions to landscaping. In addition to the early white blossoms and dark fruits, serviceberries have brilliant fall colors of yellow and orange that deepen to red.
- Downy serviceberry (A. arborea), is one of the tallest of the serviceberries, reaching 15–25 feet in the garden. It grows wild in the Eastern United States and Canada and generally prefers well-drained, slightly acidic soils. The emerging leaves are covered with silky hairs (hence the common name “downy”) and almost resemble pussy willows in very early spring.
- Shadblow serviceberry (A. canadensis) is a bushier plant, often grown as a large shrub. Nurseries offer single trunk or multistemmed forms. It tends to grow in wetter areas. Shadblow provides both thick cover for perching and nesting birds and food for songbirds.
- Running serviceberry (A. stoloniferay), is a smaller, thicket-forming shrub, 2–5 feet tall, that tends to spread. Native to the Northeast from Newfoundland to Virginia. It prefers a sunny, well-drained site with slightly acidic soil. Running serviceberry is excellent when planted as a barrier or for protective cover for songbirds.
Because native plants are accustomed to local soil, climate and other conditions, they usually do not require as much maintenance to survive. Picking plants that suit local conditions reduces or eliminates the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Choosing drought-resistant plants reduces the need to water. All of this saves you time and money.
By incorporating native plants into our landscape designs at home and at work, we can provide wildlife with food, such as berries, seeds and nectar, as well as cover and nesting areas.
Building habitat components, including native species, into a landscape design creates a more self-sustaining system with all of the checks and balances that nature provides. One can create habitats that will attract beneficial insects, small mammals, birds, frogs, turtles and other wildlife right outside your window!
The common name, serviceberry, is believed to come from a Colonial tradition. After the spring thaw, clergy would ride a circuit through mountainous regions to provide services for those who had died the past winter. This circuit usually coincided with the blooming of the serviceberry shrubs.
In the East, they are also known as shadbush or shadblow because they flower around the same time that shad are returning to their springtime spawning grounds. The term “blow” means blossom.
The serviceberry fruit, which matures in early summer gives the bush yet another name, Juneberry.
The Natural Appeal of Native Plants
Many native plants have the same appealing characteristics as non-native plants frequently used in landscaping. Consider planting native species in place of more common landscaping plants. Here are a few suggestions.
Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’
serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, A. arborea, A. stolonifera), Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
burning bush (Euonymus alatus)
fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), silky dogwood (Cornus amomum), maple-leaved arrowwood (Viburnum acerifolium)
Leyland cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii)
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
creeping lily turf (Liriope spicata) & English ivy (Hedera helix)
A mix of wild ginger (Asarum canadense), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis) Meehan’s mint (Meehania cordata), alumroot (Heuchera americana)
Miscanthus grass (Miscanthus sinensis)
little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
- Maryland Native Plant Society http://mdflora.org/
- Virginia Native Plant Society http://www.vnps.org/
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife BayScapes www.fws.com/r5cbfo/Bayscapes.htm