I tire of the same old landscaping everywhere, especially when it won’t tolerate our growing conditions. So often we see ornamental pear trees ravaged by our strong winds. Other more adaptable species could be used, but familiarity and cheap prices usually win out.
When it comes to small flowering trees and tall hedges I’d like to see more serviceberry
(Amelanchier sp.)trees planted. Also called shadbush, they have beautiful white flowers like the pears but without the fetid odor. They also have relatively strong wood that is far less susceptible to wind damage.
Serviceberries can sometimes grow 30 feet tall, but 15-18 feet is typical. They prefer a slightly acid soil and full to partial sun. Trees grow in full shade but won’t flower or fruit very much. Plants are also tolerant of wet soil. Butterflies and bees like the nectar. Since trees flower so early in spring they could be a valuable nectar and pollen source for beekeepers.
Serviceberries are native plants, though not common in this area. At least 20 different Amelanchier species inhabit North America. They are great for naturalizing. Fall foliage color ranges from yellowish gold to an orange-red. Trees may be single or multi-trunk form.
Best of all, they have edible fruits. These sweet morsels look like half ripe blueberries. They remind me a little of large huckleberries. Some say their flavor favors apple. Typical size is about a half inch in diameter.
Elongated seeds are somewhat larger than those in blueberries but not as big as blackberry seeds. Mature trees can bear several pounds of fruit. Individual plants can be productive for over 30 years. Some folks call them Juneberries, but fruits ripen in mid to late May in this area.
Fruit production is usually concentrated into a short time window, which is good. However, you have to be ready when the fruit is. There is another problem. Birds love them. So don’t other wildlife. Again, that’s not a concern if you wish to attract birds to your property and don’t care about harvesting fruit. The trees are rarely browsed much by deer.
When I lived in Maine and West Virginia I knew where many wild ones grew. I’d bring several tarps along and spread them under each tree. Then I’d climb as high as I could and shake the whole crown. Often the birds beat me to them and pickings were slim. Occasionally I’d hit the jackpot.
I’d pour the fruits into a large bucket and take them to a windy place or in front of a large box fan and winnow them. Pouring the fruit back and forth from one container to the other a few times was all that was necessary to filter out leaves, twigs and other debris.
Fruits have a short shelf life, so have a plan of action. They freeze and can well and can also be dried similar to raisins. Substitute them in any recipe calling for blueberries. Color will be less intense and flavor slightly different, but quality of the product won’t suffer.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.