Elegantly smooth, light grey bark is the setting for hundreds of floral pearls in spring gardens graced with Serviceberry trees. The Serviceberry tree can be any one of number of species of Amelanchier, a group of deciduous flowering shrubs and trees, native to various parts of the U.S. and Canada. They are very beautiful and bring refined interest to the garden in all four seasons of the year. There are a number of species of Serviceberry which are all rather similar in appearance - resulting in frequent botanical confusion over their correct names. In recent years, a large number of hybrid cultivars have become available which complicate the name issue even further. However, whether native species or hybrid cultivar, they are all handsome and are becoming more commonly available in the nursery trade as wonderfully garden-worthy, ornamental small trees.
All Amelanchier species and hybrids bloom in the spring, producing clusters of delicate, white, flowers. Their smooth grey bark is the perfect foil for the creamy-white blooms that gleam like fresh-water pearls on grey velvet. In the fall, the leaves are brightly colored, and in winter, the tree's form and bark are quite handsome. Serviceberries are known for their sweet, huckleberry-like fruit (by both gardeners and birds, who generally beat the gardeners to the tasty prize). The fruit turn red in summer and mature to a dark grey-black when ripe. All Serviceberries are completely hardy throughout the southeast from the mountains to the coast. They are essentially pest and disease free and will tolerate a range of landscape conditions from heavy, wet clays to dry, poor, sandy soils.
Amelanchier arborea, Downy Serviceberry, is native to much of the eastern U.S., including the southeastern Piedmont. It is the most tree-like of the Serviceberries (hence the name 'arborea') usually possessing one main trunk and reaching heights of 10-25 feet. The leaves emerge a soft, downy grey and gradually turn dark green for the summer. In autumn, the foliage of Downy Serviceberry has fabulous yellow-gold or orange-red fall color. The fruit of Downy Serviceberry are among the largest and best tasting. The fruit make wonderful pies and confections with a taste similar to, but slightly more tart than, blueberries.
Amelanchier canadensis, the Shadblow Serviceberry, is also native throughout the eastern part of the U.S., and up into Canada, from Maine to South Carolina. It is easily, and often, confused with A. arborea, to the point where much of the nursery stock available that is called A. canadensis, is actually A. arborea. Shadblow Serviceberry is a lower, more shrubby plant; multi-stemmed and reaching heights of 5-15 feet with a somewhat later bloom-time than A. arborea. It is found in bogs and wet sites in the wild while A, arborea tends to grow in drier waste areas and more well-drained, wooded sites. A. canadensis's chief distinction from A, arborea is its multi-stemmed, suckering habit. The flowers, bark and fruit of this species are as attractive as those of its more druidic cousin, Downy Serviceberry, but the habit is bit more ungainly.
Amelanchier laevis, Allegheny Serviceberry, can also be found growing throughout the eastern U.S. It is somewhat intermediate in habit between Downy and Shadblow Serviceberries but is generally a small, distinctly tree-like plant with 2-3 trunks. The foliage of Allegheny Serviceberry sets it apart from other Amelanchier as the new growth emerges a bronzed purple color. The new leaves are spectacular in combination with the flowers in years when climatic conditions result in the flowers still being present when the leaves emerge. Leaves turn a glossy, dark green for the summer and develop bright, clear yellow and red color in the fall.
Amelanchier x grandiflora, Apple Serviceberry, is a natural hybrid of A. arborea and A. laevis. Flowers are generally larger and many are pinkish in bud. Most (but not all) of the named cultivars available in nurseries are selections of this hybrid species.
Some of the best cultivars include: 'Autumn Brilliance', from Bill Wandell in Illinois, with persistent leaves, that prolong the excellent color of the fall season, and rapid growth; 'Autumn Sunset', selected by Dr. Michael Dirr in Georgia, with "pumpkin-orange" fall color and exceptional drought tolerance; 'Ballerina' from the Netherlands with incredibly large flowers (nearly 1 " across) and purple fall color; 'Cumulus', from Princeton Nurseries in N.J., which is a tall, tree form with exceptionally abundant flowering; The 'Royal Family' Series, which includes 'Princess Diana', 'Prince Charles' and 'Prince William' - all three offer abundant flowers, wonderful fall color and a handsome form. 'Prince William' is the shrubbiest of the three. 'Robin Hill' with distinctly pink buds that fade to white flowers, and a good tree habit and, 'Rubescens', which reaches 20 feet with rosy pink buds that open to very pale pink flowers are two additional choice selections.
The Amelanchiers have been difficult to propagate vegetatively. In the past, many were grafted which led to problems with understock suckering and overgrowth of the desirable form grafted onto the rootstock. Now, with new methods of tissue culture, grafting is unusual and the overgrowth problem is rare. Procedures for rooting cuttings have also been refined so that late spring softwood cuttings can be successfully rooted. Rooted cuttings should be left in the original rooting medium for the winter following rooting and can then be potted up the following spring to avoid loss. As with Lilacs, the window for success with rooting cuttings is small. Seed can be successfully germinated (if you can snatch it from the birds) following 3-4 months of cold treatment, layered in moist peat.
Serviceberries are one of the treasures of the native environment. Their cultivated forms bring these native delights to the landscape with suitably gardenesque character. The four-season interest, broad range of adaptability and great beauty of Serviceberries calls for wide use in landscapes throughout the southeast. Dr. Tom Ranney, of NCSU's Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Fletcher, N.C., has done extensive work with these trees to illustrate their landscape potential. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), in Raleigh, NC, Amelanchiers have lived up to that potential with year round displays of exquisite flowers, striking fall color and elegant form.