How to Plant and Grow Serviceberry

This flowering native beauty can be grown as a small tree or a large shrub for four-season interest.

autumn brilliance serviceberry
Photo:

Peter Krumhardt

Serviceberries are a relative of roses with a somewhat morbid history: This pretty native tree begins to bloom around the time the ground thaws—the same time it was possible to start digging graves in the olden days. Thus the name serviceberry, a reference to the funeral services the plant's flowers often coincided with.

These small trees and large shrubs thrive through all four seasons. Serviceberries show off their blossoms—which are usually white, but may also be pink or yellow—just before their blue-green foliage emerges in early spring, offering some of the first sources of nectar for pollinators. The five-petaled flowers closely resemble apple blossoms, but with skinnier petals. They may appear from March to May and don't usually last long—only about a week.

After the flowery display, clusters of edible berries form on mature plants, ripening to a deep red, then purple, during the summer. They make a wonderful substitute for blueberries and can be eaten fresh or made into jams and jellies. Birds also enjoy them. (Be aware that the berries are toxic to livestock, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, since their systems convert a chemical in the fruit to cyanide.) Fall brings fiery foliage, and winter offers a glimpse of the plant's stunning silver bark.

Serviceberry Overview

Genus Name Amelanchier
Common Name Serviceberry
Plant Type Shrub, Tree
Light Part Sun, Shade, Sun
Height 6 to 25 feet
Width 4 to 25 feet
Flower Color Pink, White, Yellow
Foliage Color Blue/Green
Season Features Colorful Fall Foliage, Spring Bloom, Winter Interest
Special Features Attracts Birds, Low Maintenance
Zones 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Propagation Division, Seed, Stem Cuttings
Problem Solvers Deer Resistant, Drought Tolerant

Where to Plant Serviceberries

Serviceberries perform well in full sun (at least 6 hours of sunlight) or part shade (2 to 6 hours of sunlight). The more sunlight exposure they receive, the more flowers and berries they'll produce. Moist, well-drained, and loamy soil is preferable. Serviceberry does best in slightly acidic soil, though it will also tolerate a neutral pH.

These showy plants are well-suited to borders and naturalized areas, especially against a backdrop of evergreens, which contrast nicely with the white blossoms. Certain species are native to boggy areas and can thrive near water gardens. The loose blue-green foliage of serviceberries allows dappled light to shine through, making the base a great spot for part-shade plants.

How and When to Plant Serviceberry

If you purchase your serviceberry from a nursery in a container, plant it in the ground in spring or fall. This will allow the roots to become established before the heat of summer. Dig a hole twice as wide as the container and the same depth. If you bought a bare-root tree, plan to plant in early spring, and dig a hole that's the same depth as the roots (but slightly wider). Water the tree thoroughly after planting, then add a layer of mulch around it to help maintain moisture.

If you're planting more than one tree, make sure to consider the mature size of the serviceberries. There should be enough space between them to allow sunlight to peek through the foliage.

Serviceberry Care Tips

Other than occasional pruning, serviceberries don't demand much care. Like many plants, they'll thrive when placed in the right conditions, which includes well-drained soil and a decent amount of sunlight.

Light

Because serviceberries are understory plants, you'd think they'd prefer the shade. However, they need adequate light in order to produce their berries and blossoms, so part shade to full sun is ideal. Make sure to space and prune them properly to allow light to filter through the canopy of leaves.

Soil and Water

Serviceberries are adaptable to lots of soil types. But they do best in moist, well-drained soil, ideally with a loamy texture. Clay soil can trap too much moisture, leading to root rot, so if this is your soil type, add organic matter before planting. (There are select varieties of serviceberry that can tolerate clay soil.)

Acidic soil is preferable, but these trees can also handle a neutral pH. In alkaline conditions, serviceberries will become chlorotic, a condition associated with the lightening or whitening of leaves, due to a lack of chlorophyll.

During your plant's first year, water it regularly—as often as twice a week, depending on rainfall and temperature— and apply a layer of mulch around its base to help maintain moisture levels. The soil should be moist but not wet. After that, you can reduce your watering to every two weeks. You can also water only during dry spells, but keep in mind, serviceberry will yield the best berries when it's kept hydrated. Soak the base of the tree, not the leaves, to reduce the risk of disease.

Temperature and Humidity

Although well-established serviceberries can tolerate drought, you shouldn't plant them during dry periods. Note also that high humidity can increase the likelihood of disease.

Fertilizer

Fertilize in the spring, as the serviceberry emerges from its dormant season and buds begin to break. Feed each tree with 4 ounces of all-purpose fertilizer (e.g. 16-16-16). If you perform a soil test and levels of phosphorous and potassium are adequate, you can use a nitrogen-only formulation instead.

Pruning

Serviceberry can be treated as a large shrub with lots of branches or pruned to resemble a small tree. Some species of serviceberry can sucker and create spreading colonies. Regardless, these plants grow relatively fast. That makes pruning an important part of their care, especially when they reach maturity.

Aim to prune serviceberries when the plant is dormant to minimize the loss of sap. This can be in late fall, winter, or early spring before new growth appears. Your goal is to maintain an open canopy to promote air circulation and let light reach the lower parts of the plant.

For the first three years, limit your trimming to unhealthy or damaged branches, as well as suckers (as needed). Once the serviceberry begins bearing fruit, you can prune more liberally, removing crossed branches and cutting back to maintain size. Pruning will encourage flower and berry production.

Harvesting Serviceberries

If you plan to consume the blue-black berries, pick them before their peak—ideally, when about two-thirds of the berries are ripe, sometime in late June or July. It's okay if they're not yet sweet enough to eat: The fruit will continue to ripen after harvesting—the darker the color, the riper it is—and they tend to become mushy and hard to pick if you wait longer. The exception: Don't pick berries for jams or jellies until they're fully ripe for the right texture.

Morning is the best time for harvesting, since the hot sun softens up the berries later in the day. After washing, refrigerate the berries immediately to slow down ripening and prevent spoiling.

Pests and Problems

Pests

Serviceberry trees encounter very few problems. If you experience a particularly dry, hot summer, spider mites could appear on the foliage. In most cases, this will cause no long-term damage to the health of the tree; the effects are merely cosmetic. Lace bugs and aphids may also target serviceberries.

Fungal and Bacterial Diseases

Serviceberries are vulnerable to many of the same diseases as apple and pear trees. They can develop cedar-quince rust, a fungal disease that causes the leaves to droop, branches to die, and berries to become inedible. When decay sets in, this disease may eventually kill the tree, but the problem is usually cosmetic. Serviceberries are also affected by other types of rust, such as cedar-serviceberry rust and cedar-hawthorn rust.

A fungus known as Entomosporium may result in leaf or berry spot. The foliage develops small, angular-looking spots, sometimes with a yellow border, and berries become deformed and have gray spots. Watering at the base of the plant, rather than overhead, will reduce the risk of this disease. Affected areas can be trimmed off; make sure to cut 12 inches beyond the diseased section.

Powdery mildew is another fungal disease to watch for—it looks like white or gray dust on leaves. Pluck off and discard any diseased foliage, and prune diligently to promote airflow. While this disease isn't deadly, it does detract from the ornamental appeal of serviceberry.

Fire blight—a bacterial disease—is common among fruit trees and can be highly destructive. Often associated with humid, wet weather, this condition creates cankers that ooze a watery substance on the branches and trunk. As fruit and flowers emerge, they will turn black and shrivel up, and eventually, the tree may start to look scorched. Damaged portions can be cut off in the summer or winter after the bacteria stop spreading. Trim a foot beyond any discolored areas, then destroy the cut branches. Disinfect your garden tools with a diluted bleach solution.

How to Propagate Serviceberry

To easily propagate serviceberry, use a shovel or pruning shears to remove suckers and their roots from a mature, healthy plant in the spring (before buds break open). Trim each sucker to about 2 inches and wash off any dirt before transplanting in a pot or directly in the ground. Make sure to water well.

Serviceberry can be grown from seed. However, the seeds will not produce plants identical to the parents, and the process is not always successful. Seeds require 3 to 4 months of cold stratification before being layered in moist peat.

Softwood cuttings are another potential method of propagation, though often with limited success. Take the cuttings in the late spring, leave them in the same pot through the winter, then transplant them outside the following spring.

Types of Serviceberry

'Regent'

Regent Serviceberry

BHG / Evgeniya Vlasova

Amelanchier alnifolia 'Regent' is a compact shrub that grows to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Native to the American Great Plains, this variety is decently drought tolerant and hardy in Zones 2–7. Its deep purple fruit makes delicious jams, jellies, or pies.

Common Serviceberry

Common Serviceberry

BHG / Evgeniya Vlasova

Amelanchier arborea is also known as downy serviceberry, a reference to the fine hairs on its leaves and twigs. In cultivation, it grows 15 to 25 feet tall and wide, but in native woodlands, it may reach 40 feet tall. Its fall color is a delightful mix of orange, red, and gold. This type is hardy in Zones 4–9

'Autumn Brilliance'

amelanchier autumn brilliance serviceberry
Peter Krumhardt

Amelanchier grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance' is a hybrid with exceptional fall colors, ranging from orange to red with gold overtones. It grows 15 to 25 feet tall and wide and is hardy in Zones 4–9.

'Cumulus' Allegheny

Cumulus Serviceberry

BHG / Evgeniya Vlasova

Amelanchier laevis 'Cumulus' is a narrow upright tree that grows 25 feet tall and 12 feet wide. It is covered in clouds of white blossoms in spring. Purple berries in summer and red-orange color in fall extend its showy display. This cultivar is hardy in Zones 4–8.

'Apple'

amelanchier X grandiflora apple serviceberry
Scott Little

Amelanchier X grandiflora 'Apple' is a drought-tolerant hybrid with a graceful rounded form. It grows 20 to 25 feet tall and wide and bears profuse white blooms that are sometimes tinged pink. The pinkish-purple berries resemble miniature apples. This type is hardy in Zones 3–8.

Serviceberry Companion Plants

Rhododendron

Pink And Purple Rhododendron

Randall Schieber

Rhododendron thrives in the shade, making it a great option to grow in the shadow of your mature serviceberry. These shrubs are known for their showy springtime blossoms, but even after the flowers are spent, the glossy green foliage adds visual interest to your garden.

Creeping Phlox

moss phlox creeping perennial groundcover with pink blossoms
Peter Krumhardt

Creeping phlox is a perennial groundcover that flaunts bright spring flowers atop an evergreen mound of foliage. Although it typically prefers full sun, it will also grow in the dappled light beneath your serviceberry, especially in places with hot summers. It tops out at 6 inches tall.

Foamflower

white foamflower tiarella detail
Ian Adams

Foamflower is a low-growing perennial that performs well in dappled shade, producing pink or white blossoms that draw the eye upward. The dark green foliage is attractive on its own and serves as a pretty backdrop for other plants.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do serviceberry trees smell bad?

    It depends on your nose. Serviceberry flowers are only lightly fragrant, with a scent some find pleasant and some dislike. However, it's not a defining feature of the plants.

  • Can serviceberry grow in containers?

    Yes, they can be grown in large pots. Keep in mind that the container will limit the span of their roots, so your potted serviceberry may be smaller than those planted in the ground. Since serviceberry can be transplanted, you could start the tree in a container, then move it to your yard later.

  • Do deer eat serviceberry?

    Serviceberry is considered mildly deer-resistant. The 'Standing Ovation' cultivar is a good choice if you have a deer problem.

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