Amelanchier

Amelanchier

When you only have a small front garden, choosing the right tree is important. Make the wrong decision and the people buying your house next will get a surveyors’ report fretting about root damage to the foundations. Before then you’ll find those roots lifting your front path, tripping you up every time you go to open your front door.

A picture of an Amelanchier tree in full bloom.

Amelanchier in full bloom. Copyright Martin Stott

Choose well, though, and research indicates the only thing lifted will be the value of your property. But which tree? A few years ago we planted an amelanchier. We love it. Not everyone does. Writing in Hortus[1], Matt Collins, Head Gardener at the Garden Museum in London, claimed that amelanchiers now represent 90% of trees being planted in ‘stylish’ London front gardens. He told of his quest to find an alternative.

A close-up shot of Amelanchier flowers

Amelanchier bloom. Copyright Martin Stott

It took him some effort because amelanchiers are quite special. They flower profusely in spring – delicate white stars that almost glow when they hit peak power. The leaves on our tree start out lime green with a hint of bronze. They redden in autumn, before they drop. In early summer the tree offers dark purple berries[2] that provide a generous wild harvest for the birds.

I have never tried to eat the berries – the birds snaffle them before they can fully ripen. But in North America, where more varieties are found than anywhere else, they were a source of vitamin C for native Americans and the early settlers. The Cree called the berries mis-sask-qua-too-min, which got shortened to saskatoon – today the name of the capital of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. In Germany and Holland people dried the fruits and used them as currants. They also stewed them or made them into jam.

Common names

In Canada, amelanchiers are often known as shadbushes because their flowers bloom just as the shad fish begin making their way back up river.

The tree has a few other common names – snowy Juneberry, snowy mespilus and serviceberry. It’s said that serviceberry came from the fact that in the Appalachian mountains the tree came into bloom just as the snow was melting. The roads could finally be cleared sufficiently for travelling preachers to reach communities to carry out weddings and funerals – the ground also now soft enough for bodies to be buried after the tough winter.

Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck

Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829)

The North American amelanchiers began being introduced to Britain as early as 1597[3]. But they took a long time to become common. A. canadensis was still one of the most expensive trees listed in the catalogue of York nursery Telfords nearly two centuries later, in 1775[4].

I think our tree is an A. lamarckii. Its origins are bathed in mystery and confusion. Botanists believe it is probably a natural hybrid of A. laevis and either A. arborea or A. canadensis – all from North America. Whether the pairing happened there or in Europe no-one knows.

Lamarck

The French botanist, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, first described this variety in 1783. He had seen it growing in Paris. He called the tree Crataegus racemosa. In the 20th century Fred-Günter Schroeder, a German botanist steeped in too much Latin, argued that racemose wasn’t a suitable botanical term for amelanchiers. To go into the reason would risk inflicting death by boredom on readers, and I don’t have the professional indemnity insurance for that. Suffice to say, he gave Lamarck’s tree what he called a “nomen novum“. And so, in 1968, he rechristened it A. lamarckii.

So, there you go. Not the perfect tree for Matt Collins (who finally chose a Crataegus x viridis ‘Winter King’), but great for me. It offers three seasons of interest, is good for the birds, doesn’t hurt the house, has an interesting story. And on top of that it’s part of the rose family – as are the rest of the trees in the back garden. I clearly can’t help myself.

This doesn’t mean I don’t understand the point Matt was making – I wouldn’t want the whole street lined with them. I think we’re lucky here. We have a rowan, a cherry and a Cornus kousa. They all give me pleasure and, be sure, they’ll all have their own stories to tell.

 

[1] “No more Amelanchiers please: seeking a rival to the perfect small garden tree” – Hortus no.148, Winter 2023
[2] More accurately they are a small “pome” – a technical term for the kind of fruit you find in apples, pears and hawthorns or pyracanthas. See: The Shadbushes, Richard E. Weaver Jr. Arnoldia vol 34 No 1 Jan/Feb 1974
[3] Sarah Rutherford, An Introduction to hardy plants and plantings for Repton and late Georgian gardens (1780-1820) Garden History Spring 2019.
[4] Early Gardening Catalogues by John Harvey p.54

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.