Growing Shadberry

Regional gardener JoAnn Gardner shares her passion for Shadberry by planting the tree in her New York garden.

| June/July 2004

The shadberry, or shadblow tree (Amelanchier spp.), is so named because it usually blooms in the spring when the shad are running upstream to spawn. Another common name, also based on its bloom time, is juneberry. Its small, ovoid-to-rounded purplish fruit, high in vitamin C, has been used for millennia, eaten raw, cooked in sauces and pies, and dried for winter use. When pounded into a kind of bread or paste, juneberries were an important ingredient in life-sustaining pemmican. Shadberry is one of the most useful trees or shrubs. Folk names, such as Indian pear, sugar-pear and grape-pear attest to its sweet fruit. Another common name is serviceberry, which you may have heard pronounced sarvisberry.

When we moved to the Adirondacks, we observed that shadberry trees we had come to adore growing wild at our previous Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, home are an insignificant feature of roadside bloom. So we decided to bring them back into our lives by growing them in our gardens. While we knew that shadberries are variable and easily hybridize, we did not realize that there are so many different kinds available and that some are bred especially for their fruit production. Nomenclature is a problem, but as Trevor Cole observed in his book Gardening with Trees and Shrubs (Whitecap Books, 1996), although they often are named incorrectly in nurseries, “they are all equally nice, so the names may not be that important.”

Mostly native to the New World—one species grows in eastern Asia—shadberries grow from 6 to 20 feet tall, or more, depending on the species and their variants. Their alternate leaves are oblong to nearly rounded and vary from finely to coarsely toothed, sometimes hairy or smooth, often noticeably bronzy when young. Bark is smooth and grayish, another positive feature. Loosely formed five-petaled spring flowers (similar to wild roses to which family amelanchiers belong) grow in drooping clusters that are replaced by drooping fruit clusters by summer. If you don’t harvest them as soon as (or a little before) they’re ripe, the birds will get them all. Shadberries have great value for wildlife. Not only songbirds, but wild turkeys, ruffed and sharptail grouse, bobwhites, mourning doves, skunks, red foxes, raccoons, black bears, squirrels and chipmunks also like the fruit. Cottontail rabbits, beavers, deer and moose are said to favor the twigs. In the wild, shadberries grow in clearings and cutovers, in damp habitats and along roadsides. In cultivation, they are amenable to most soils but prefer sun.

For a tight shrub border, we chose the western species, Amelanchier alnifolia, or Saskatoon berry, because of its small, shrubby stature — easier to work into our landscape than a tree—and its superior fruit. It is tough and hardy to Zone 2. The specimen we bought was advertised as 4 to 6 feet tall, so I assume it is a selection. A. alnifolia ‘Regent’ grows to about 7 feet tall and is reported to have dense foliage and good flowers.

I planted our shadberry between golden elderberry and the rose ‘Frau Dagmar Hartopp’. The persistent theme of use and beauty is carried out here, too, where just beyond the garden proper I can harvest rose petals, berries and hips in their season and enjoy the beauty of these shrubs from spring into the winter months. If you are lucky enough to grow shadberry (or whatever name it goes by), you can substitute them for other wild berries in pie, muffin or biscuit recipes. Shadberry jam and jelly is supposed to be delicious, too, though I’ve not yet tried it.

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