What are serviceberries?
Serviceberries (Amelanchier) are a genus of plants containing multiple species of shrubs/small trees found throughout temperate regions of the world, including in every US state (except for Hawaii). Serviceberries are in the rose family, making them cousins to common edible plants like apples, pears, and plums.
(In case you didn’t know, roses are also edible.)
Other common names for serviceberries
Common names for serviceberries vary by country and region, which can create some confusion when it comes to identification or public discussion. Other common names for serviceberries in the US include:
Any time we share serviceberry posts on our social media accounts, we’ll inevitably have people from other regions in the US chime in with some confusion because their local names for the fruit are different than ours. “Are these the same as [insert regional name]?”
Why are they called serviceberries?
According to local Appalachian lore, the name serviceberry has a rather morbid origin. If the plants were in bloom, it meant the ground was thawed enough for people to have funeral services for those who died during the winter.
However, the name serviceberry pre-dates European colonization of North America and was also common in Europe before Europeans arrived here. So the more likely etymology is that the serviceberry fruit looks similar to European sorbus fruits, another rose family plant often called “service tree” in England.
Are serviceberries edible?
Yes, serviceberries are edible to humans. They’re also a hugely popular food for wildlife, especially birds.
Although they’re called “berries,” serviceberries actually produce a pome fruit, botanically akin to apples and pears.
What do serviceberries taste like?
The flavor of serviceberries can vary by species and region. Serviceberries we’ve grown or foraged here in the Carolinas all taste very similar, like a cross between blueberries and peaches with a hint of almond flavor.
What can you make with serviceberries?
Trying to figure out what to do with serviceberries? Like blueberries, serviceberries are excellent eaten fresh.
If you’re lucky enough to have more than you can eat fresh, there are countless ways to make serviceberries into delicious foods and beverages such as:
- pies, cobblers, muffins, and other baked goods
- sweet or savory fermentations
You can also substitute serviceberries 1:1 for blueberries in any of your favorite blueberry recipes to get amazing results. (Do note that blueberries have a slightly higher water content than serviceberries.) Or a google search for “serviceberry recipes” will provide you with inspiration for new ideas.
We’ll be sharing more of our favorite serviceberry recipes soon, but here are two good ones to get you started:
How to forage serviceberries
There are multiple species of serviceberries in North America. Growth habits and key identification features may vary a bit by region, so get to know your local species and how to ID them.
Some serviceberry species are particularly cold-hardy. For instance, a connection on our facebook page noted that she forages wild serviceberries in Embarrass, Minnesota (Zone 2b/3a), where winter temperatures dip to -50F. That’s tough! (Note: In her area, they’re called “juneberries” since they ripen in June.)
How to identify serviceberries
We live on the outskirts of Greenville, SC, in Zone 7b. The serviceberries we see growing in the wild here are typically small trees (10-20 feet tall) which flower in April and produce ripe fruit in May. The fruit is gone by *June. (*We grow a serviceberry variety that fruits longer into early June as we detail further below.)
- Tree-like species of serviceberry (example: downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)) typically max out at about 20′ tall but can grow larger in ideal conditions. They feature a single trunk with smooth grey bark.
- Shrub-like species of serviceberries (example: shadblow serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)) max out at about 10′ tall. They’re multi-stemmed and can form dense thickets and even clonal colonies from runners.
For more local Southeast info, Clemson University details five species of serviceberries that grow natively in our bioregion.
Three universal serviceberry features to help you with identification:
1. Leaves – At maturity, serviceberry leaves are 2-4″ long and are slightly heart-shaped at the base/stem attachment. They’re finely toothed on the edges and have a pointed tip.
All serviceberries are deciduous. Some species also feature gorgeous red-colored foliage in the fall.
2. Flowers – Serviceberries feature small clusters of white, star-shaped flowers with rounded petals which form as the weather warms in late winter-early spring, depending on climate zone.
3. Fruit – Serviceberries’ small pome fruits start green then turn from pink to red to deep purple when fully ripe. They closely resemble blueberries in shape, size, and color when fully ripe.
As mentioned, serviceberries have a wonderful flavor, reminiscent of blueberries, peaches, and almonds. However, when foraging a new plant for the first time, taste should NOT be used for identification.
Where do serviceberries grow?
In our experience, wild serviceberries are relatively rare in the southeast. Talking to other folks around the country, it sounds like serviceberries are much more common in the North and Northeast US than here in the Southeast.
In the Southeast, we typically see serviceberries growing on the edges of mountain trails and stream or river banks, reaching out into the opening to harvest sunlight.
For example, at a family vacation to Lake Keowee, we were thrilled to find a fruiting serviceberry tree growing next to a gorgeous waterfall. By “we” we mean our toddler, who gobbled up all the foraged fruit!
How do you pick serviceberries?
You can pick serviceberries exactly like you do blueberries: simply pull the ripe fruit off the plant. However, since serviceberry plants can be much larger than blueberries, you’ll often be reaching overhead while picking (or benefit from a ladder in a home orchard setting).
If you have an abundance of serviceberries to pick, we’d also recommend using a wearable harvest basket so you can have both hands free, providing a big efficiency boost.
Do serviceberries have any poisonous lookalikes?
In the Southeast US region, there are no native poisonous serviceberry lookalikes. However, we can’t speak to poisonous lookalikes that may grow in other countries or regions, nor can we speak to the edibility of non-native look-alike species that might be planted in landscapes.
For instance, glossy buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula L.) is a non-native invasive that could be confused with serviceberries by the uninitiated. Glossy buckthorn berries are mildly poisonous.
Once you’ve successfully identified serviceberries, it’s hard to misidentify them in the future.
Will serviceberries continue to ripen after picking?
When foraging, we’ll often encounter slightly unripe, red-colored serviceberries. If we know we won’t have time to come back to the spot again, we’ll pick these fruits anyway, even though they’re not nearly as flavorful as fully ripe, purple fruit — yet.
Left at room temperature, red slightly unripe serviceberries will fully ripen to purple within about 48 hours (see photos below) and taste every bit as good as fruit picked at full ripeness.
This tip could also be very helpful for anyone competing with birds, who tend to promptly descend on the fruit when it reaches peak ripeness!
How to store serviceberries – how long do they last?
Serviceberries are thin-skinned and fairly perishable. The skins can rip during picking which makes them even less shelf-stable.
Undamaged fully ripe serviceberries can be stored at room temperature for about 5 days. Stored in a ziplock bag in a veggie drawer of your fridge, they’ll last for 2 weeks+.
How to grow serviceberries organically in the Southeast US
Like other rose family plants, growing serviceberries organically in the Southeast can be challenging. In fact, we ranked them #29 of 35 plants on our list of easiest fruit to grow organically in the Southeast!
We’ve intentionally grown two varieties of serviceberry: ‘Autumn brilliance’ (large, tree-like variety/species) and ‘Northline’ (a small dwarf, multi-stemmed variety). A third unknown variety is also growing wild on our property.
About 5 years after planting, our ‘Autumn brilliance’ serviceberry was getting shaded out under the canopy of a chestnut tree. (Our mistake for planting them too close together.) While serviceberries can tolerate part shade, they’ll be much more productive and happy in full sun.
In addition to lack of sun, a problem our ‘Autumn brilliance’ experienced under the canopy of the chestnut was less evaporation and airflow, which made it more susceptible to rust, a fungal disease which commonly infects rose family plants in the southeast and other regions as well. (More on that below.)
We soon decided to remove our young Autumn brilliance tree, but have had good success with our smaller ‘Northline’ serviceberry growing in full sun with good airflow around it.
Another interesting note about ‘Northline’ serviceberries is the fruit ripens later and stays longer than native tree-like serviceberries growing in our area. The last fruit on our ‘Northline’ is usually ripe around early-mid June, with some variability based on seasonal temperatures.
Basics of growing serviceberries in the southeast:
- Sun: Select full sun spots; they’ll tolerate part shade but won’t produce as well.
- Soil: Rich, moist but well-draining soil is ideal for serviceberries but they can tolerate a wide range of soils, from sand to clay. Top-dressing around your plants with compost and mulch each year works wonders.
- Water: An established serviceberry is fairly drought-tolerant, but the plants will perform best with about 1″ of water per week throughout the warm months.
- Pruning: One nice thing about serviceberries is they don’t necessarily require any pruning – this is especially true for small, shrub-like species/varieties. For larger, tree-like serviceberries, you may want to remove crossing branches or prune to increase airflow through the canopy to reduce the likelihood of foliar diseases. Any suckers growing around the base of tree-like serviceberries should also be removed.
- Fertilization: If you don’t use compost, worm castings, or mulch to boost soil fertility around your serviceberries, you’ll want to apply an organic fruit tree fertilizer or fertilizer spikes as the plants break dormancy in early spring.
Variety selection & where to buy serviceberries
When selecting serviceberries varieties, three important considerations:
- Make certain you select varieties ideally suited for your growing zone. Some serviceberry varieties are better suited for hot, humid climates and others are better suited for cold, northern climates.
- How much space do you have? For home landscapes, smaller shrub-like serviceberries may make more sense than tree-like serviceberries.
- While serviceberries are partly self-fertile, you’ll get more fruit production with at least two plants grown within 50 feet of each other.
Where can you buy serviceberries? If you can’t find serviceberry plants locally, there are numerous online nurseries to choose from, including sellers on Amazon.
You can grow serviceberries from seed, but you’ll be waiting additional years to get fruit if you do.
Biggest challenge: how to treat rust on serviceberries
The biggest challenge with growing serviceberries organically in the southeast is cedar-apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae) or related rust diseases. Rust is an airborne fungal disease that can deform serviceberry fruits, making them inedible.
Rust needs two completely unrelated host tree species to complete its lifecycle: native Eastern red cedars (which are actually junipers) and any rose family species. Once a juniper tree is infected, it produces alien-looking teliohorns (spore horns) via galls which then release spring spores that infect rose family plants via their flowers and leaf buds.
An infected serviceberry plant isn’t likely to die, but it will develop leaf lesions or deformed fruit which then release spores back into the air, infecting or re-infecting nearby juniper trees. And the cycle repeats.
Rust can be particularly bad during wet, warm springs.
Tips for reducing or treating rust in serviceberries using organic methods and cultural practices:
1. Plant your serviceberries in full-sun spots with good airflow so the above-ground portions of the plant stay as dry as possible, making them less susceptible to fungal pathogens.
2. Use drip irrigation instead of overhead irrigation.
3. As best as possible, remove any juniper trees (aka Eastern red cedars) growing nearby. Spores can still blow in from far away, but at least you can reduce the quantity/disease pressure.
4. Keep your serviceberry trees healthy and happy by focusing on soil health. Healthier trees are less prone to disease.
5. Use Surround WP from fruit set to harvest. Surround is made from naturally-occurring kaolin clay and can be applied to serviceberries and other plants to reduce fungal disease and pest insect pressure. It also makes your plants/fruit less attractive to birds and increases fruit yields by reducing heat stress.
Downside: kaolin clay leaves a chalky residue on your plants and fruit that might not be visually attractive, even though it’s perfectly safe — and safe to eat. We’ve even used kaolin clay to grow organic cherries and peaches here, which many consider downright impossible!
6. If you don’t like the visuals of kaolin clay, consider other OMRI-listed/organic fungicides that are listed as effective for rust. Probiotic foliar sprays (homemade compost teas or commercial products) may also help by outcompeting the pathogens.
Other pest and diseases of serviceberries in the southeast
- Japanese beetles enjoy eating the foliage of serviceberry trees. They don’t seem to do a huge amount of damage to the plants but we detail how to control Japanese beetles organically if they’re a severe problem for you. WP Surround/kaolin clay can reduce Japanese beetle pressure as well as pressure from other pest insects, such as various species of shield/stink bugs.
- Mistletoe (a parasitic plant) can infect serviceberry trees. You can remove mistletoe with pruners.
- Birds LOVE eating serviceberries and may be your biggest impediment to getting high yields of fruit. Tricks for keeping birds away from fruit trees abound on the internet, so use the method(s) best for your setup.
In your pest control strategies, remember that serviceberries are native plants that also serve as host plants for innumerable beneficial native insects and other animals. We’d encourage you not to use harsh insecticides, synthetic or otherwise, which can kill or harm off-target species as well as creating other health and environmental problems.
We hope this information helps you learn more about how to grow and forage serviceberries, one of the most delicious edible native fruits out there. Enjoy!
More native fruit you’ll want to grow or forage:
- How to use American beautyberries as food and insect repellent
- Aronia: how to grow or forage the world’s highest antioxidant fruit
- How to grow, forage, and eat Japanese and American persimmons
- How to grow or forage native passionfruit (Passiflora incarnata)
- How to grow and use ground cherries
- How to grow and eat prickly pear cactuses
- Complete guide to growing elderberries
- How to grow pawpaws: North America’s largest native fruit