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What Time is it in Nature: Common Serviceberry

April 4, 2014

Spring is here, and with it comes spring flowers!  Several trees are now blooming at Prairie Ridge, and the explosion of colors and interesting shapes is impressive.  One tree that you can find in the Nature Neighborhood Garden is stunning now, the Common Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea).

Common Serviceberries are fairly small as trees go, typically reaching heights of no more than 40 feet in garden and other landscaped settings, though they can occasionally reach 60 feet under ideal natural settings.  The bark is smooth and grey and sometimes develops fissures as the tree ages.  These trees do well in a variety of light levels, though they thrive in full sun, and are reasonably drought tolerant.  All of these characteristics make Serviceberries popular trees in landscaping.  They are also popular due to their flowers and foliage.  The white flowers appear at the tips of the trees in early spring…

Serviceberry blooming

… where you’ll typically find the flowers growing in clusters of 4-10:

Serviceberry flowers

Common Serviceberry flowers provide an early source of pollen in the spring and are visited and pollinated by a variety of bees.

The leaf buds of the Serviceberry begin to burst after the start of the bloom and eventually produce oval-shaped leaves up to 3 inches long.  The leaves are pointed at the tip and you can see fine serrations along the edges.  Although it can be difficult to distinguish the various types of serviceberries most of the year, you can easily identify Common Serviceberry when it has new leaves: they are downy on the underside.  Another common name for this tree, Downy Serviceberry, comes from this characteristic.  In the fall, the leaves turn a variety of colors, including pink, reddish, and orange-yellow.  Between the spring bloom and the brilliant fall display, it’s no wonder these trees are so popular with gardeners and landscapers!

Serviceberries get their names from the fruits the trees produce:

Serviceberry berries

The berries resemble small apples and begin to develop as the flower petals fall from the trees.  They will ripen in summer and become a reddish-purple color at maturity.  These fruits provide an excellent food source for area birds.  They are also a favorite food for people in some areas of the world and are most commonly eaten in pie or jam form.  (Please note, however, that you should never eat wild fruits or other plant parts unless you are absolutely sure of the species!)

While birds, bees, and sometimes humans take advantage of the flowers or fruits as a food source, several other animals enjoy Common Serviceberry too.  Saplings are occasionally consumed by deer and rabbits, and such animals help control the populations of Serviceberries in the wild.  Several moths and other insect species feed on the leaves as well.

Common Serviceberry has a variety of common names, including Shadbush, Shadblow, Juneberry, and Sarvis-berry, depending on the local lingo.  Many of these common names are tied to the tree’s biology.  Serviceberry and Sarvis-berry were likely given because the appearance of the flowers coincided with the end of winter snows, which allowed traveling preachers to resume their wanderings and provide church services for people in areas where Serviceberries grow.  The timing of the bloom also coincided with the Shad migration upstream to their spawning sites, hence Shadblow and Shadbush.  Juneberry comes from the fruit, which ripen and are available for harvest in June.

The Common Serviceberry in the Nature Neighborhood Garden at Prairie Ridge is currently putting on a great flower show!  On your next visit, be sure to visit the tree closest to the back entrance to the garden and take a look at the flowers.  Soon, these will be replaced by dozens of fruits hanging from the leafy branches, a veritable buffet for the Prairie Ridge birds!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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