Native “Blueberry” Deserves More Attention
Blueberries are commonly touted for their nutritional value in health articles, recommended-foods-lists, cooking shows, cookbooks, on and on. But a very similar Nebraska native fruit is surprisingly unknown and underused.
Amelanchier species, known by the common names of Juneberry or serviceberry, are beginning to gain popularity as an ornamental landscape shrub—and ornamental they are, with three strong seasons of interest. But even where these shrubs/small trees have been included in a landscape for their ornamental value, few people realize the blueberry-like fruits they bear are tasty and actually “higher in protein, fat, fiber, calcium, magnesium and manganese than blueberries and strawberries” (Montana State University Extension guide).
In June the branches are covered with clusters of white flowers; the common name serviceberry refers to the fact that they were often used for pioneer burials in early spring when little else was flowering. The flowers are followed by fruits that change from green to red, then turn dark blue when fully ripe. Most years this ripening occurs in June, leading to the other common name of Juneberry, though with this year’s warm weather many of them ripened in early May.
Birds and other wildlife love the fruits, so they disappear quickly. The fruits are very similar to blueberries and can be used in all the same ways—frozen raw for use later or used fresh in pies, wines, jams or almost any recipe that calls for fresh fruit.
The waxy green foliage turns beautiful fall colors ranging from yellow to orange to red. Species of Amelanchier range from 10-25’ in height and from single to multi-stemmed. Both the native species and developed cultivars are adaptable and easy to grow as an understory tree, though they prefer a somewhat moist, protected environment as many are native to moist areas along streambeds.
Though it is still not commonly grown, Jules Sandoz was well aware of its merits. In his 1903 Report of Sandoz Experiment Station, Sheridan County, Nebraska Sandoz wrote “Juneberries are the berry for the northwest. No farmer ought to fail to plant a patch. I have just distributed, free, wagon-loads of plants from my early plantings.”
Three of the 25 species of Amelanchier in the Northern Hemisphere are native to the state of Nebraska: Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), native to the central and northern portions of the state and growing about 15’ high; shadblow serviceberry (A. arborea), a usually multi-stemmed understory tree common along the banks of the Missouri River; and dwarf serviceberry (A. sanguinea), native to northwestern Nebraska and growing about 10’ in height.