A few months ago I came across a mysterious tree in a nearby wood. It was then winter, so the tree had no leaves, but it did not look like anything that I was familiar with. The multiple long slim trunks were densely clustered together, rising to about twenty feet tall, and the smoothish grey-brown bark had a subtle pattern that I did not recognise.
I decided that I had to wait for more evidence to help me identify it. Every now and then I walked past the tree, through spring and early summer. When the leaves arrived they were oval with a pointed tip, and carried fine serrations along the margins. In many ways they looked like a rose leaf, except that there were slightly downy underneath. Yet studying the leaves still did not give me the confidence to identify the tree.
Then, one day in April, having not visited the spot for two weeks, I found that my intriguing tree had suddenly burst into flower. Beautiful clusters of loose white blossom covered the tree: each flower having five long white petals. I could now more easily recognise that there were several of these trees dotted throughout the wood because their white blossom really stood out. The smaller trees all emanated from the site of the single large specimen that I had spotted originally, so this was a fertile tree.
Once the flowers had departed, small green berry-like fruits took their place. These were much loved by birds so very few reached maturity but the survivors were round, pinky-red, about half a centimetre across, and sported dried sepals at the end.
I now had enough evidence to identify the tree and I soon solved the mystery. The tree is sometimes called a snowy mespil in the UK, but is also widely known by its Latin name of Amelanchier (amma – lan – shee – er). They have been grown in this country since at least the 18th century and, interestingly, they are part of the rose family so the similarity to rose leaves was not simply coincidence.
There are many species of Amelanchier, and identifying them is tricky even for botanists. In Canada, for example, experts cannot agree on how many native species there are but there are probably between 10 and 15 of them. In North America, various species of Amelanchier are known as serviceberry, juneberry, or shadbush. Precise identification is further complicated by the fact that there are many hybrids and varieties that have been created by gardeners over the years.
There is one species native to eastern Europe, Amelanchier ovalis, but my mystery tree has different flowers to this species and more clearly serrated leaves so is almost certainly originally from North America. Some of these species, such as Amelanchier laevis, have slowly become naturalised in the UK, especially southern England.
Mystery solved! Look out for those rose-like leaves and the beautiful white flowers. You may not be able to determine the exact species, but you’ll know it’s an Amelanchier.
You can see a list of many North American Amelanchier species here, with descriptions and illustrations (scroll to the bottom of the page for full list).