Downy serviceberry is a tall shrub or small tree with a narrow, rounded crown. It's very popular as a native tree for landscaping, for its ornamental qualities, wildlife value, and edible fruits.
Leaves are alternate, simple, oval, 2–5 inches long; finely toothed with a pointy tip, medium green; in autumn, turning gold and orange, often with reds and greens, too.
Bark is light gray and smooth when young; dark gray with shallow grooves and long ridges with age.
Flowers March–May, often before the leaves emerge; silky-hairy; slightly fragrant; petals 5, bright white, strap-shaped, wavy, with a space between them (petals not crowded together); clusters drooping or erect.
Fruits June–July; round, reddish-purple berries, ⅓ to ½ inch in diameter, tasteless or sweet, borne on long stalks; seeds small and numerous.
Similar plants: Low serviceberry or low shadbush (A. humilis) also occurs in Missouri; it grows in clumps and its leaves have coarse teeth and blunt tips. At least 4 other Amelanchier species have been introduced for landscaping purposes. 'Autumn Brilliance' is a popular hybrid between downy serviceberry and A. grandiflora; it has a multistemmed, shrubby growth habit.
Height: to 40 feet; spread to 35 feet. Usually much smaller.
Grows naturally in most of the state except for the northwest corner; cultivated statewide. Common through much of the eastern United States.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in open, rocky woods and bluffs, usually on well-drained slopes. Often associated with northern red oak, black oak, white oak, and flowering dogwood. It is one of the first of Missouri's woody plants to bloom in spring, with showy white flowers that appear before the leaves. Serviceberry is increasingly used in landscaping for its showy white flowers and edible red fruit (which attracts birds), and a number of cultivars are available.
Native Missouri small tree or shrub. Provides early spring flowers, great fall color, and fruit that is edible to both humans and wildlife. Important early-spring nectar source for pollinators. Very popular native landscaping tree/shrub.
In Missouri, this is one of the most popular native small trees or shrubs for landscaping, thanks to its pretty white springtime flowers, attractive summer foliage, handsome bark and branching habit, and gold, orange, green, and red autumn colors. The berries can be sweet and great for baking and snacking; at a minimum, they can attract many birds to your yard!
Horticulturalists have developed several cultivated varieties of this species, and related species and hybrids are available for sale, too. Before buying a serviceberry, shop around to decide what qualities you desire. Choices vary, for example, in the particular colors the leaves turn in fall; the sweetness, size, and color of fruit; cold hardiness; growth habit (for example, single-trunked small tree versus multi-stemmed shrub with a suckering habit); maximum height; speed of growth; and resistance to leaf spotting, mildew, and so on.
Where did its names come from? It has many common names: downy serviceberry, downy juneberry (or June berry), downy shadbush, sarviss berry, sarviss tree, shadblow, common serviceberry, and sugar plum. Many Missourians know it simply as serviceberry. Here are some possible explanations.
- Some people have explained the unusual name by noting that the plant's bloom time (in early spring, soon after the thaw) coincides with the ability for circuit-riding preachers (riding on horses or in horse-drawn wagons) to be able to travel again, providing religious services for people.
- A similar hypothesis holds that the bloom time coincided with the ability to hold burials (and burial services) that had been put on hold until the ground was thawed.
- However, the word service is actually a corruption of the older word sorbus, the original Roman name of an Old World plant that bears similar fruit (the genus name for those plants, also called mountain-ashes or rowans, remains Sorbus). The Latin sorbus turned into the Old English syrfe, which morphed into service in England starting in the 1500s. English settlers, encountering similar trees in North America, thus called our Amelanchier trees by the same name. This is the explanation accepted by most etymologists.
- The name shadbush did come from the bloom time, however: it blooms in early spring, when the shad fish run in New England streams.
At least 35 species of birds eat the berries, and at least a dozen types of mammals eat the berries or browse the twigs and foliage. Serviceberries bloom for only a few weeks, but as early bloomers, they provide nectar to bees and other insects just emerging from winter hibernation.
When you plant native serviceberries as a great native alternative to the invasive Callery (Bradford) pear, you help to expand habitat resources for wildlife instead of contracting them. Many Missourians have been making the switch, and you can, too!