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Plant Profile: Saskatoon, Amelanchier alnifolia

Updated: Jun 20

A shrub of variable height in the rose family (Rosaceae), saskatoon is probably one of the best-known and loved native species in the Prairie Provinces. It can occur as a single, well-formed bush or as thickets. It ranges from 1 to 6 m in height, and is often shorter in grassland where it may form low thickets, than in open woods where the surrounding vegetation is taller. 


Saskatoon forming colonial thickets, Nisku Prairie, 2011-05-24. P. Cotterill.
Saskatoon forming colonial thickets, Nisku Prairie, 2011-05-24. P. Cotterill.

It somewhat resembles cherries, Prunus species, but can be readily distinguished from them by leaf shape, flower and fruit. It is placed in its own genus, Amelanchier, the service berries or June berries. The specific name alnifolia means alder-like leaves and refers to the leaf shape:  leaves are broader than those of cherries, having almost a rectangular look. The toothed edges in the upper part of the leaf are also characteristic. In the winter, shrubs can be recognized by their dark purple stems and hairy buds.


Saskatoon shoot in Whitemud Park North, 2023-05-12.  P. Cotterill.
Saskatoon shoot in Whitemud Park North, 2023-05-12. P. Cotterill.

The white flowers appear in an erect, vertical cluster in May, about the same time as pin cherry but invariably before chokecherries bloom. The five petals appear long (6-10 mm) and narrow and are widely spaced; they surround numerous stamens and five styles. The ovary is below the flower (inferior) and develops along with surrounding tissue to form the familiar round, juicy, black “berry” (technically a pome) with a whitish bloom and enclosing several seeds. The (five) sepals persist at the top of the fruit. The fruits are an important food source for wildlife.


Ripe fruits. (online photo)
Ripe fruits. (online photo)

Saskatoon does not seem to be widely planted in gardens, although I think it can make a good accent shrub. Its flowers are a sign of spring, albeit ephemeral, and its fruit is more spontaneously edible than chokecherries. It is grown as a commercial crop and is widely planted in restorations; it is available in nurseries, sometimes as cultivars. A good place to see this plant is along the banks of the creeks and the river in Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River valley where it often grows with chokecherry.  You will sometimes see ugly clumps of dead, black curled leaves within the bush. This is caused by a fungus disease, blackleaf or witches’ broom, which usually is not lethal unless the crown is infected.


Developing fruits in Fort Saskatchewan Prairie, 2022-06-09. P. Cotterill.
Developing fruits in Fort Saskatchewan Prairie, 2022-06-09. P. Cotterill.

Amelanchier alnifolia occurs across Canada from British Columbia to Quebec and in the northwest. It is the only species in Alberta, albeit widespread, but other species of Amelanchier are native to Canada. They are mainly found in the east, except for Cusick’s serviceberry (A. cusickii), which is a native of BC. 

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