In praise of ... amelanchier
A peacock competes for attention with an amelanchier in full bloom at Cotswold Wildlife Park near Burford
Spring is on the tip of Nature’s tongue. At this time of year, it may sometimes as if she is having a senior moment and can’t quite remember the name of the new season, but by the end of the March, the first of the flowering trees are coming into bloom.
One of the most reliable of these, in my experience, is amelanchier, and I’ve never understood why this tree is not more popular. It has delicate white flowers and copper leaves in spring, berries in summer, and good autumn foliage colour.
It has a natural tendency to be multi-stemmed, which means that it can be grown either like a shrub or as a small tree. It will tolerate pruning, and will achieve a maximum height of only 30ft after 20 years, so it’s a great choice for a small garden.
Amelanchier, like Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum), forsythia, ornamental quince (Chaenomeles ssp) and flowering cherries, are understorey trees, and this is the key to their flowering behaviour. Crucially, they come into flower before they come into leaf – a process known as “hysteranthous” – and the reason for this is pollination.
Understorey species get shaded out once the trees above them start developing leaves, so they need to produce their flowers fast, while sunlight is still available to them, and while pollinators are not distracted by other blossom sources. If they produced flowers and leaves at the same time, they would be straining already limited resources.
They also need the pollination process itself to be speedy, and a frothy display of blossom can be seen much better over longer distances if it is not partially obscured by leaves. In addition, it will attract social pollinators such as bees and wasps, who will quickly communicate the source of this largesse to their colonies.
Finally, these social pollinators - especially in the case of honeybees - will work systematically over the tree until they have exhausted its supply of nectar and pollen.
Amelanchier are mainly native to North America although there are two Asian species and one that occurs in Europe. The two sorts of amelanchier you are most likely to encounter in the UK are A. canadensis, which as its name suggests, is from eastern Canada, and A. lamarckii. A. lamarckii is a hybrid, and strictly speaking should be called A. x lamarckii, but unlike many hybrids, it comes true from seed.
Amelanchiers must hold the record for the number of common names and nicknames they possess. In America, they are known as serviceberry, saskatoon, shadbush, sugar plum, or (my personal favourite) chuckley pear, while in the UK they are more commonly known as June berry, or snowy mespilus, because of their starry white flowers. (Mespilus germanica is the botanical name for medlar.)
As you would expect of trees that grow in woodland, amelanchiers prefer soil that is on the acid side of the spectrum, and most textbooks will tell you that they dislike lime. The textbooks will also tell you to grow them in full sun while at the same time informing you that these trees like plenty of moisture.
So how do you grow them here in the Cotswolds? The best way to get around these seemingly contradictory instructions is to grow them on the edge of woodland, or where mature trees such as beech provide plenty of leaf litter. While it’s true that amelanchiers like sunshine, they don’t flourish in a hot, dry, exposed position. A typical woodland floor, rich in leaf mould and other organic detritus, not only helps to keep the soil neutral but also provides a nice damp root run.
Could I leave you with one last thought? This comes from Barchams, the tree nursery, who have just announced that they now hold a Royal warrant from the Prince of Wales as well as HM the Queen, so they obviously know their stuff.
They have joined the BBKA in promoting a Bees Need Trees campaign, and as they point out: “It is believed that five or six trees provide more forage for bees than an acre of wildflower meadow. It's so much easier to plant a tree than to try and grow an abundance of flowers.” I couldn’t agree more.