Thursday, April 12, 2012

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Serviceberries? Yum!

Serviceberry in flower
The serviceberries are almost finished blooming in the Chicago area.

The amelanchier has more names than you can shake a stick at.  This small native tree/large shrub, often called a serviceberry, is also known as a juneberry, Saskatoon, shad blow, shad bush, sugarplum,  sarvisberry, chuckley pear or even currant-tree.

 I recently added another one – delicious.

While most people in recent years have focused on the tree’s ornamental qualities, its fruit increasingly is taking center stage. Amelanchier (pronounced am-el-LANG-kee-ur) is mentioned in the book “Edible Landscaping” by Rosalind Creasy as well as other similar books. It’s also being grown commercially in Canada’s Prairie provinces with great success.

Closeup of serviceberry flowers
Serviceberry flowers

The various amelanchier species do have nice white spring flowers, smooth gray bark and good fall color. Recent introductions have enhanced these traits, including Autumn Brilliance, which has great fall foliage.  Rainbow Pillar and Cumulus, two narrow upright versions, are great for smaller urban lots.

What most people don’t realize, though, is that the fruit is quite tasty and can be eaten straight off the tree. Many of the edible fruits from other trees and shrubs, like chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) or elderberries (Sambucus spp.), need to be cooked with some sugar.

Serviceberries technically aren’t even berries; they are actually "pomes" or a tiny apple of sorts. They also are good for you, with lots of antioxidents. Native Americans mixed them with dried meat and fat to make pemmican, which sustained them in the winter.

I recently stumbled across a website that sells jam, syrup and pie filling made in Canada from a specific kind of serviceberries known as Saskatoons (Amelanchier anifolia).  So I ordered some jam and decided to treat my co-workers at a breakfast meeting.

Empty jar serviceberry jam
Serviceberry jam
The tasting was a big hit!  They described the taste as similar to blueberries but with a twist. Some thought it has a slight almond taste, while others thought it was similar to that of blackberries, dark cherries or raisins. Needless to say, there wasn’t much jam left and my family quickly devoured that.

There are several efforts underway to promote these trees in the U.S. as a commercial crop or an addition to pick-your-own farms. These include Michigan's Saskatoon Project Midwest and a demonstration project by the Cornell University Cooperative Education Extension in upstate New York.

Both are focusing on Canadian varieties especially developed for their fruit: Regent, Smoky, Northline, Thiessen, Honeywood, Pembina, Martin and JB-30 (all Amelanchier anifolia).

Several of the more widely available serviceberries, including Regent (Amelanchier anifolia), and Cole Select, Autumn Brilliance and Princess Diana (all Amelanchier x grandiflora) are reportedly tasty. You also get the plant vigor usually associated with a hybrid form.

Meantime, I’m trying to figure out where I can put a few of these in my garden. Serviceberries, unlike blueberries, will grow in the alkaline soil common in the Chicago area and don’t require two different varieties to get a good crop.

They do, however, need full sun, good drainage, air circulation and watering during drought, especially while they are getting established. The fruit generally matures to a deep blue color here in early July, despite its "juneberry" nickname.

A serviceberry takes about three years before it starts producing a decent-sized crop. Given the wonderful taste and health benefits, though, I’m willing to wait. Now if I can only figure out a way to get the fruit before the birds do….

Serviceberry bush in bloom
A serviceberry in full bloom
By Karen Geisler


  1. Well, look at that. It's a beautiful flower that produces a tasty looking jam. I'm definitely growing them in my garden.

  2. Yes, it's definitely nice to have them in a garden. With the right outdoor lighting, it can be the star of the garden.

  3. I've always wanted to be hands-on in our garden, but I seem to not have what they call the "green thumb". I have a complete garden tools at home but I'm not just a natural when it comes to gardening.

  4. We have one of thesr beautiful trees in our backyard. It came with the house, i never knew until now what it was so the birds feasted on the berries the last 3 years. Next year, ill definitely try to get enough berries for a few bottles of jam before the birds do. Ill be sure to leave plenty for them though. :)