Plant of the Month: April 2022

I first (consciously) saw an Amelanchier lamarckii in the Abbey Gardens at Bury St Edmunds in spring some thirty years ago. At the time, it seemed a delightful, delicate and exotic rarity, but either they have become more popular or I have become more aware of them over the years: there are now at least a dozen in my immediate vicinity.

Amelanchier lamarckii (Credit: Udo Schröter)

The name Amelanchier was bestowed on the genus by Medik., aka Friedrich Kasimir Medikus (1738–1808), a physician and botanist who became director of the Academy of Sciences founded in 1763 in Mannheim by Karl Teodor, Elector of Bavaria (1724–99), and also curator of its botanic garden. Medikus is said to have encouraged the cultivation of Robinia (locust trees) in Europe, presumably for for their decorative rather than their useful qualities, as they are toxic (except for the flowers, which can be used to make tea).

Medikus, looking like almost every other European botanist of the period.
I include this portrait of Karl Teodor as it was painted by Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721–82), yet another of the many female artists of whom I had never heard, and who seems to have known everyone from Frederick the Great to Goethe. (Credit: Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim)

Even less obvious is what the word means: apparently, it comes from amalenquièr, amelanchièr, the Provençal name for A. ovalis, the snowy mespilus (though Mespilus normally refers to the medlar family, also in Malinae), on which accounts differ: either it was native to central Europe and the Mediterranean area, or it naturalised after having been introduced from North America in the sixteenth century. However, my best efforts with Occitan and Provençal dictionaries have not got me any further. (In any case, did Medikus know Provençal? The French name is amelanche …) I was surprised, however, to learn from IPNI that A. lamarckii was named only in 1968, by Fred-Günter Schroeder (1930–2019).

Most of the Amelanchier genus (in Malinae, Maleae and eventually Rosaceae) come from North America or Asia. There are a lot of them: at least twenty-two species, and of course many hybrids. Confusion is increased by the doubling up of names – snowy mespilus, for example, is used for both lamarckii and ovalis (the latter also named by Medikus).

A. ovalis.

There are very many common names for all the species: A. alnifolia, for example, is Saskatoon serviceberry, alder-leaved shadbush, or Saskatoon berry. (Unsurprisingly, it comes from Canada; more surprisingly, the city is apparently named from the plant, rather than vice versa. It derives from the Cree language – misāskwatōmina.) ‘Serviceberry’ is a recurring name, usually with an adjective denoting origin. So Nantucket serviceberry, coastal serviceberry, Allegheny serviceberry, western serviceberry, Utah serviceberry. ‘Shadberry’ occurs sometimes, as does shadbush: alder-leaved shadbush (see above), mountain shadbush (A. batramiana, named for John Bartram by the Bohemian botanist Ignaz Friedrich Tausch (1793–1848)), eastern shadbush, low shadbush, thicket shadbush, smooth shadbush, low shadbush, red-twigged shadbush, Wiegand’s shadbush (Karl McKay Wiegand (1873–1942) was an American botanist). And all of them are also known as juneberries.

A. alnifolia (Credit: Walter Siegmund)
A. bartramiana, from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 139, 1913.

The white blossom in spring is accompanied by pink leaves which change to green, followed by edible berries, called ‘pomes’, which can be used for jams and pies, and also for a fruit wine: some hybrids have been bred specifically for fruit and are grown commercially in North America. They can also be used, dried, in pemmican – a high-calorie, long-lasting food that I recognise from Swallows and Amazons etc. but which I had no idea originated with the Cree nation (where the word is pimîhkân). The green foliage turns a glowing brown in autumn before falling, and the bark is also attractive, assuming of course that you are growing it as a tree rather than a bushy shrub.

As an ornamental tree/shrub, A. lamarckii seems to be the most common species grown in the UK, though the RHS (which gives it an AGM) demonstrates again the number of possible synonyms. It is thought to be a hybrid, possibly of A. laevis (the Allegheny serviceberry) and A. aborea (the downy or common serviceberry) or A. canadensis, which has a staggering number of names:  Canadian serviceberry, chuckle-berry, currant-tree, juneberry, shad-blow serviceberry, shad-blow, shadbush, shadbush serviceberry, sugarplum, thicket serviceberry, and bilberry (which in Europe of course refers to Vaccinium myrtillus).

A. laevis (Credit: Dan Keck)
A. arborea, the downy or common serviceberry.
A. canadensis (see above for its many names).

Here are some of the specimens of A. lamarckii within about 100 metres of my house:

But I have a confession: I have never grown it myself. When my beloved Cornus kousa ‘China Girl’ was transplanted just over a year ago, I feared I had killed it, and was planning to get an Amelanchier to replace it, but in fact, it seems to have pulled through – in spite of ending up at an alarming angle to the ground after the alphabet soup of storms in mid-February. (I hastily staked it upright again, and it is just coming into leaf.) I can’t contrive a space for a snowy mespilus – or not until the squirrel-planted hazel, which I foolishly let grow away about twenty years ago, and which (in our area) is now protected, pops its clogs. But luckily, as shown above, I am surrounded by them, and at this time of year they are a wonderful and cheering sight.


This entry was posted in Botany, Gardens, History, Natural history and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Plant of the Month: April 2022

  1. Leo JV says:

    Pops its clogs! I’m on my way to my dictionary / thesaurus. Thanks for a warm post on a chilly day in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.


  2. Shannon says:

    I’m so glad your Cornus made it. Thanks for your continued writings. I see that you are enjoying your time away from the museum and adding to my enjoyment at the same time.


  3. Amy Erickson says:

    To add to your collection of women artists, you might also like Mary Delany’s 1777 Mespilus, one of her extraordinary collection of some thousand cut-paper botanical collages:


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