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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Anderson

Downy, Canadian, Allegheny – Which Serviceberry is Right for You, and How Do You Know?


Canadian Serviceberry shrub in full bloom
Amelanchier canadensis

With spring approaching, can’t you just feel the intensity building among the Serviceberries, jockeying once again to be the first to bloom among the small natives?  


Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) bloom usually in mid-April providing a bounty of early season nectar for the pollinators seeking a pick-me-up after the long winter.  (After they fade, out come the blooms of the White Flowering Dogwood (Benthamidia florida) and Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), sometimes at the same time.)

The Red-spotted Purple larvae feed on the leaves of Amelanchier spp.
Red-spotted Purple Butterfly

Amelanchier spp. is considered a Keystone Plant because it hosts 90-plus caterpillars, including the Red-Spotted Purple and Viceroy. 


Native bees and other pollinators love the nectar, and more than 40 species of birds – including cardinals, cedar waxwings, robins, thrushes, mockingbirds and orioles – feast on the berries as do foxes, chipmunks, elk, black bear and deer.


Flower on Serviceberry in full bloom
"Perfect" flowers on Serviceberry

The fragrant flowers on Serviceberries are “perfect” in that they have both male and female reproductive parts.  That means only one tree is needed for fruit production, although two or more may result in a higher yield.  


Those fruits first appear when the tree is just two or three years old and ripen to a purplish black by June–which is why Serviceberries also are called Juneberries.


Amelanchier canadensis fruits
Juneberries ripening on Canada Serviceberry

These fruits look and taste like blueberries or tart cherries but structurally are more like apples in that they have seeds at the core.  They’re tasty right off the tree and great on pancakes and in cereals as well as baked into pies and cooked into jams.


Fall colors range from golden yellows to fiery oranges and reds, and smooth, gray bark provides winter interest, making Serviceberry a great all-around tree.  




Red fall leaves on Amelanchier canadensis
Fall leaves on Serviceberry


Wouldn’t life be simpler if there was just one to choose from? 


In fact, there are about 30 Serviceberries native to North America and about 10 native to New England. 


Further complicating Serviceberry selection is the cross-over in common names.  


  • Amelanchier arborea: Downy Serviceberry, Common Serviceberry, Juneberry and Shadbush.

  • Amelanchier canadensis: Canada, Eastern Shadbush, Juneberry and just plain Serviceberry.

  • Amelanchier laevis: Allegheny, Smooth Serviceberry, Smooth Shadbush and Juneberry.



Amelanchier laevis in bloom
Blooms on Allegheny Serviceberry

They’re also hard to tell apart physically; in fact, some of the differences are so subtle you’d have to be a trained forester to find them.   Thus the short answer is, you’d probably be fine regardless of which one you choose.  


Looking more closely, here is my elevator speech




Leaves on Downy Serviceberry
Amelanchier arborea summer leaves
  • A. arborea and A. laevis are similar in size and structure, and often hybridize in the wild.  But A. laevis’ leaves emerge purple-bronze and hair-less in spring while A. arborea’s new leaves are fuzzy. 


  • A. canadensis is shorter, often grows as a shrub and prefers dappled sunlight and moist soils.  It also flowers about a week later than the others and has upright flower clusters while the others droop. 


Serviceberry fruits are among the tastiest of the native fruits.
Good off the vine, on pancakes and on cereal

Diving deeper:


Downy (A. arborea) gets its name because of its fuzzy new leaves (downy) and the fact that it grows the most tree-like (arborea).  It will grow 25 to 30 feet tall, or more, with a narrow crown and usually one trunk or a small clump of narrow trunks.


Like all Serviceberries, the fruits are ready to eat long before blueberries and most other native fruits begin to ripen.


You may have to decide for yourself if the berries on the Downy are tasty. 

Here are the “experts”:

  • “Regrettably unpalatable” – Cullina, W., Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines.  

  • “Among the largest and best tasting” – NC State University. 

  • Better than highbush blueberries” – Dirr, M. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (emphasis is his).


Amelanchier laevis as a multi-trunk tree
Allegheny Serviceberry

Downy grows naturally on dry, wooded slopes and in moist areas along riverbanks and near swamps.  It is adaptable to well-drained dry or moist soil and prefers both full sun and part shade.  


Allegheny (A. laevis) is similar to Downy in size and form, although it can get a bit taller, up to 40 feet.  Its purplish new leaves make it perhaps the more interesting choice.  


There is some suggestion that this species produces the best fruit among these three species:  “Delicious” (Cullina) and “preferred by the [Native Americans]” (Dirr).  


Allegheny grows in the wild in thickets and at the woods’ edge.  It prefers full sun to light shade and moist and well-drained or dry conditions.

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance' in the fall
Fall leaves on 'Autumn Brilliance'

Downy and Allegheny naturally hybridize in the wild, creating Amelanchier x grandiflora, or Apple Serviceberry.  A popular cultivar of Apple Serviceberry is ‘Autumn Brilliance,’ which provides exceptional fall color.


Shadbush (A. canadensis) is smaller than the others, topping out at 10 to 20 feet and about five-feet wide.  It grows most comfortably as a multi-stemmed shrub and often forms thickets.


Shadbush naturally grows in the understory and flourishes in dappled sunlight.  It does well in full sun as long as it has consistent moisture.   


It is excellent as a foundation plant, at the wood’s edge and along stream and pond banks.


Serviceberry infected with Cedar Apple Rust (photo: Lucy Bradley)
Photo of "spore horn" on Serviceberry by Dr. Lucy Bradley, NC State University

Serviceberries generally are pest and disease free, although they are susceptible to a fungus, Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae, which causes Cedar Apple Rust.  


You’ll know your Serviceberries are infected if you start seeing spike-like spores–spore horns–on the fruits, swelling on the branches and spots on the leaves.  



The fungus should not impact the overall health of the tree, but you’ll definitely want to leave the fruits for the birds, and it’s best to prune out the infected twigs and leaves.


Juniperus virginiana blue fruits on female tree branch
Eastern Redcedar branch and fruits

The best prevention is to make sure your Serviceberries are a mile or more from another beautiful native tree and alternate host for the fungus, Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana). 


Fun fact #1 ☺: The common name Serviceberry refers to the timing of the blooms with the thawing of the earth so that the inhabitants could bury their dead.  


Fun fact #2 ☺: Shadbush refers to tree’s flowering at about the same time the New England shad begin their inland spawning migrations.


Sources:

  • Amelanchier. JC Raulston Arboretum.  NC State University.

  • Amelanchier canadensis The Purdue Arboretum Explorer.  Purdue University.

  • Canadian Serviceberry. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Guide. 

  • Cullina, W. Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines.  2002.  New England Wild Flower Society.  Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

  • Dirr, M.A. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. 1975. Stipes Publishing Company, Champaign, Ill.

  • Mahr, S. Serviceberry, Amelanchier spp., Wisconsin Horticulture, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

  • Snyder, S. A. 1992 Amelanchier Arborea, U.S. Forest Service Fire Effects Information System.


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