Flowering native Michigan tree produces delicious berry crop

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

A couple of years ago, tree cutting contractors hired by the power company came through and clear-cut all of the trees and shrubs under and around the electric lines that run across our property.

It really needed to be done because the plants were impinging on the wires. However, along with the more common trees, they removed a few interesting trees and shrubs as well. One was a large amelanchier, also known as serviceberry, shadbush or Juneberry, among other names.

After it was cut, it sprouted new shoots from the stump and grew unnoticed. This spring, it was finally big enough to flower again and is really standing out from the other plants.

The spot where it is growing looked like just a lot of nondescript brushy growth. Then, all of a sudden,  after the warm rain we had, the flower buds opened and there it was, an 8-foot-tall shrub covered in white flowers. It’s making a nice show with all those flowers against the more drab background of the other trees and shrubs.

Amelanchier flowers are about an inch across.

Although I’ve never seen it noted by experts in their descriptions of amelanchier flowers, ours has a wonderful sweet scent of vanilla, almonds and powdered sugar, all rolled into one. You do have to put your nose right up to the flowers to get a whiff of it, though.

There’s a reason why it’s called Juneberry; it produces small blueberry-like berries that ripen in June. The berries are such a favorite of birds that they will strip a bush clean very quickly before people have a chance to pick any. I’ve only tasted a few berries in the past because of the birds, so I plan to cover this one with bird netting. The birds will just have to go somewhere else. I know there are other serviceberry trees in the area. They can fly over there to eat.

It’s no accident ours is located right under the powerline. Years ago, some neighborhood bird, after gorging itself on serviceberries, passed the seeds through its digestive system, depositing them as it perched on the wire. Then one of the seeds sprouted right where it landed and began growing. That sounds like an inauspicious beginning, but it's a common way many plants spread their seeds.

Amelanchier grow either in a shrub form or as a small tree, usually topping out at about 15 to 20 feet tall.  Ours has always been growing as a shrub, even before the powerline clearing.

There are a couple of different species native to Michigan; ours is Amelanchier laevis, commonly called Smooth Serviceberry because of its smooth leaves  The other species, downy serviceberry, has fuzzy leaves.

It’s often hard to tell which one you have because sometimes the leaves change their appearance though the growing season. Even leaves on the same plant can look different depending where on the plant they are growing.

To add to the confusion, the two species easily crossbreed to form hybrids.

Amelanchiers make a great landscape plant. Many domesticated cultivars have been developed that differ by size, growth shape, fall color, berry color or other traits and are sold in garden centers.

Many people are making plans to deal with the new normal after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides by growing some of their own food. A few amelanchier shrubs planted in a yard can be a decorative, tasty and nutritious addition to anyone’s perennial garden.