By Larry Partridge | RGS & AWS Forest Conservation Coordinator – Southern and Eastern U.P. of Michigan
Featured photo by: Iva Vagnerova
One of my favorite springtime activities is planting fruit-bearing trees for wildlife. While it’s important to implement good forestry practices to make sure you’re providing the right structure and habitat, it certainly doesn’t hurt to throw in a bit of good eating as part of an overall strategy. Supplemental planting of soft-mast species can add a lot of value to a hunting spot. These tree species bring flowers, and thus pollinators to a site, produce food for a variety of wildlife. They’re often on the smaller side, so they can provide some midstory structure to a forest.
You might be tempted to reach for some of the old favorites like crabapples and hawthorns, but there’s another species that you should always include in your supplemental planting toolkit: serviceberry.
Trees of the genus Amelanchier, commonly known as serviceberry but also called shadbush, shadblow, juneberry or saskatoon are small deciduous trees in the Rosaceae family and are common in forested landscapes throughout North America. The serviceberry collective is represented by an array of species, subspecies and regional cultivars that tend to overlap in range and often hybridize. This can sometimes make a positive ID on a particular specimen a bit of a head-scratcher. But the important thing is that if you live anywhere that’s home to ruffed grouse, you probably have your own native version of serviceberry nearby.
Standing only about 15 to 20 feet tall with smooth, rippling gray bark, alternate branching and slightly serrated, ovoid leaves, the serviceberry is an unassuming tree. This unassuming nature belies a very useful and versatile habitat workhorse.
The serviceberry varieties are relatively resilient plants and do well in most soil types. Most species can subside in nearly any arable ground. Some even prefer bogs and swamps. Serviceberry trees can also tolerate a wide range of sunlight conditions. While full sunlight certainly lets them live their best life, they also persist quite well under the shade of a forest canopy.
In addition, serviceberry comes in different forms, from slender, single-stemmed trees to squat, multi-stemmed shrubs. These factors make the serviceberry an option to plant nearly anywhere and create a forgiving and adaptable element of an overall planting strategy.
The serviceberry brings great wildlife value for every season. They’re among the first trees to bloom in the spring. By late April, they blossom in an impressive but brief rush of delicate, white, five-petal flowers held aloft in dense clusters, providing an important early stopover for pollinators and attracting invertebrates as an important protein source during mating season.
This early flowering also may have contributed to a few of the serviceberry’s names. The names serviceberry (the ground is now soft enough for funeral services to resume) and shadbush (the shad are making their spawning runs up New England streams) both attest to annual, early-spring events that coincide with Amelanchier in bloom.
And being among the first to flower, naturally the serviceberry is also one of your first fruiting species of the year. As another of its names (juneberry) implies, it’s one of the few trees already producing fruits by early summer. The berry-like pomes are small, only ¼ to ½ inch across, and grow in clusters at the tips of the branches. They’re bright red and deepen to a bluish-purple hue toward the end of the season.
The sweet fruits provide extremely popular forage for many wildlife species, especially songbirds, but have also been cultivated for human consumption. First Nations peoples utilized the serviceberry for generations, even lending their name for the tree (saskatoon) to the place where they gathered berries and arrow shafts. To this day, serviceberry jams and cobblers are relatively common in climates that don’t support many other orchard species.
Heading into autumn, serviceberry continues to provide, as it’s one of the showier fall color trees. Their leaves turn bright and fiery, ranging from red to orange to deep bronze. This, combined with its other qualities, has led the serviceberry to be adopted in landscaping as a native alternative to some of the invasive species that gardeners have used in the past. So, whether planted back along the field edge or square in your front lawn, the serviceberry will add a splash of flair to your fall colors.
As a component of a diverse land management and complementary planting plan, the serviceberry has a lot to offer. Their early flowering and fruiting work well in combination with other soft-mast species and extend the time that good forage is available. Their resilience and versatility allow them to be plugged in nearly anywhere on the landscape. The serviceberries are lovely to behold once you know what to look for and when to look.