In the Garden:
Middle South
February, 2012
Regional Report

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Serviceberry adds sparkle to the early spring garden with its clusters of white flowers.

Welcome Serviceberry

I felt as if I'd won the lottery a couple of weeks ago when I fortuitously came across two large balled and burlapped serviceberries that were perfect for the new garden. These attractive understory trees, which are among the earliest to bloom in spring, are an excellent choice for shady landscapes, or even sunny spots with adequate moisture.

The ones I stumbled on while hunting for another plant are Amelanchier x grandiflora (as are most serviceberries in the trade), commonly known as the apple serviceberry. This hybrid is a cross of two native species -- Amelanchier arborea, called downy serviceberry, and Amelanchier laevis, known as smooth serviceberry.

Most of the named selections of this hybrid grow 20 to 25 feet tall, and all feature clusters of showy white flowers that emerge before (or with) leaves in spring. Colorful fall foliage is orange or orange-red. 'Autumn Brilliance', with stout stems and blue-green leaves is perhaps best known, but others are equally spectacular.

In the wild, serviceberry trees sparkle against their backdrop of leafless trees in March. They bloom long before flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), which often shares their woodland habitat, and just before the more colorful redbud (Cercis canadensis).

The early flowers of serviceberry are an important source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, while their fruits, ripe here in late May, are consumed by a wide variety of birds and small mammals. In fact, serviceberry fruits are a godsend to many songbirds, since they mature early in the nesting season.

The edible purple-black berries, which are roughly the size of a blackberry, can be used to make jams and preserves if harvest them before the critters get them all. Like other mysteries of nature, the birds seem to know the exact minute the fruits are ripe and can swoop in and clear a tree in a matter of minutes.

Though the two serviceberries I purchased were not marked with a cultivar name, I'm thrilled to have them. Their multi-trunk form and silver bark add a grace note to the winter garden, and their 8-foot height gives a sense of maturity to a newly-planted garden area.

The trees have been given a spot of honor befitting their importance, flanking a stone staircase that descends from the formal backyard into the wild garden that abuts the Reedy River. There, they make the ideal bridge between the ornamental landscape and the native woodland, and can lend their magic to both.

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