|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): blooming in May|
By May, many shrubs are starting to bloom in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden. The flowers are attracting a number of native bees as well as the European Honeybees raised by our neighbor. One of our favorite native shrubs is the Western serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia. The scientific name is pronounced: am-el-AN-kee-er all-nih-FOE-lee-uh.
There are eighteen species of Amelachier worldwide. Of these, fourteen are native to North America, with individual species tending to occur in either the Eastern or Western parts of the U.S. Amelanchier alnifolia is native from Alaska and Western Canada south to California, Arizona and New Mexico. In much of its range it grows in open coniferous and mixed evergreen forests, in areas with at least 14 inches annual precipitation. 
In Colorado, Western Serviceberry is native to nearly all of the western and central counties, growing at elevations from 4500 to 11,000 ft. It is a common constituent of Aspen and Pinyon-Juniper communities, often growing on dry hillsides or in canyons, but sometimes in the dappled shade of trees. You have likely seen it in the wild, perhaps not recognizing it when it’s not in bloom (below).
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia):Western CO|
Amelanchier alnifolia is known by several common names, including Saskatoon serviceberry, Pacific Serviceberry, Juneberry, Shadbush, Alder-leaved Serviceberry and Shadblow. The names Serviceberry and Juneberry reflect the timing of the flowering, often in June, at a time when the ground was soft enough to allow burial services. The name Shadblow appears to reference flowering at the time of the spring Shad fish run. 
Western serviceberry is a large woody shrub in the Rose family (Rosaceae). It can reach a height of twenty – even thirty - feet (6+ meters), but is more often in the 6-12 ft. range. A mature plant can have a spread of 6-10 ft. (2-3 meters). It is a fairly slow-growing shrub that often is long-lived, both in the wilds and in gardens. That makes is a good choice for the home garden – as long as you are patient!
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): mature shape|
Amelanchier alnifolia most commonly grows as an upright shrub, although it becomes more tree-like in favorable conditions. It becomes wider and denser with the years, adding new stems at its base. Some plants even sucker. Its mature shape is rounded and quite attractive (above). The bark is smooth and gray or reddish-brown (young twigs).
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia):foliage|
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): fall color|
The leaves are alternate, round or oval, with partially serrate edges and prominent veins (above). Leaves are a dull green during spring and summer, turning to red, orange or yellow with cold fall weather. Leaves are deciduous in winter. Budbreak occurs in late April or early May, at least in our garden at 6000 ft. elevation.
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): cluster of flowers|
The flowers of all species of Amelanchier are pretty, one reason these are favored garden shrubs in Europe and North America. As seen above, the flowers of Western Serviceberry are white and grow in compact clusters. The flowers are sweetly scented and attract a range of insect pollinators, including butterflies. The flowers appear anytime from May to June and flowering may last up to a month.
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): flowers (close-up)|
The flowers have five, strap-like petals and both male and female parts (a ‘perfect’ flower). In the photo above you can see the male anthers (brown colored) and the female stigmas (look closely – they are yellow). In a good year, a mature plant many be covered in thousands of flowers.
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): developing fruit|
Pollinated flowers develop into edible fruits. As seen above, the fruits begin green and mature through pink stages to a ripe dark purple. The mature fruits look somewhat like blueberries, and are as edible (below). Fruits are small (1/4 to 1/2 inch) and ripen from early to midsummer. They taste most like blueberries, perhaps with a hint of apple. Fruits can be eaten raw – but not to overdo, as the seeds and foliage contain cyanide-like toxins. These toxins are destroyed by heating and/or drying.
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): mature fruits|
Serviceberries are widely used for pies, jellies, jams, sauces and baked goods. They can be dried and used like raisins or made into fruit leather; they also freeze well. In fact, they can be used – fresh or dried – in any recipe that calls for blueberries. We like making a flavored syrup which can be used on pancakes, desserts or to flavor sparkling water. The fruits can also be used to make wines and cordials. Traditionally, various parts of the plant were used in herbal medicine. The hard wood was also used for tool handles and the young stems for basket rims and handles.
Western Serviceberry is fairly easy to grow in USDA Zones 4-9 – if you have the right conditions. A well-drained soil is a must: no heavy clays, but any other soil texture is possible. It prefers a soil pH between 5.0 and 7.0, but does fine in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden with a pH close to 8.0. It can be grown in full sun to part-shade (see above).
Western Serviceberry is a plant of the West, having adaptations that allow it to survive our variable (and unpredictable) precipitation. Most plants have a combination of vertical taproots and lateral roots, allowing them to take advantage of available precipitation and survive dry conditions. That being said, Amelanchier alnifolia needs occasional deep irrigation during hot, dry conditions. Established shrubs should be fine with 1-2 good waterings a month, even in dry, windy Western Colorado. But it takes 2-4 years for an individual to become fully established.
Western Serviceberry benefits from an organic mulch. We use a 2-3 inch layer of leaf/clippings mulch, applied in late fall and again in spring. Plants are usually fairly disease-free, particularly in dry climates and in gardens with good air circulation. But leaves can develop rust (plant away from junipers and other plants susceptible to rusts).
Like most species in the Rose family, Western Serviceberry can develop fire-blight. Look for ends of twigs and branches becoming brown/black, maybe curling over a bit, or cankers seeping a cloudy liquid during the damp spring. Prune out affected branches well-below the disease and be sure to clean your pruners to avoid spreading the disease to other plants.
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): 5-year olf plant|
Western Serviceberry makes an easy-care, large shrub in the garden. We’ve included several in our hedgerow, along with other native shrubs. A dense planting makes a good windbreak in windy areas. Serviceberry looks good most of the year – even when dormant. And it needs little or no pruning to keep it looking tidy. However, it can be pruned up as a small tree if desired.
Amelanchier alnifolia is a good habitat plant, providing nectar and pollen for native pollinators. Its size and density provide cover for birds and smaller animals. Fruit-eating birds such as robins, woodpeckers, chickadees, thrushes, towhees, bluebirds, waxwings, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, goldfinches and others will happily compete for any leftover fruits. In fact, you may need to cover your shrub to protect some for the family!
If you like a natural, Western look for your garden, Western serviceberry is a good choice. It makes a nice background for some of our smaller silvery shrubs like the Artemisias and Saltbushes. It also highlights any summer and fall-blooming perennials and ornamental grasses. Its neutral green color is a good foil for almost any light or bright color.
In closing, we very much like Western serviceberry as a garden shrub. It has much to recommend it over non-native large shrubs and we’re surprised it isn’t used more often in our area. Maybe you can be a gardener who changes this trend!
|Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): good choice for garden|
For a gardening information sheet see: Gardening sheet amelanchier alnifolia (slideshare.net)
For more pictures of this plant see:
For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html
1. Jepson Manual On-line: http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/get_JM_treatment.pl?5249,5252,5254
We welcome your comments (below). You can also send your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org