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Most species occur in the northeastern U.S. and adjacent southeastern Canada, although there is at least one native species in every U.S. state and Canadian province or territory except Hawaii. Taxonomic classification of the genus is difficult; like many genera in Rosaceae, Amelanchiers hybridize readily and show a considerable amount of apomixis (asexual seed production) and polyploidy (different multiples of chromosome numbers), so classifications vary considerably in the number of species recognized.
Amelanchier species grow to 0.2–20 m tall, and may be small trees, clump-forming shrubs, or low-growing extensive clonal stands. Bark is thin, smooth, gray to brown, often with darker striations. Branches are generally slender, with alternative leaves ranging in shape from lanceolate to elliptic to orbiculate, up to 10 cm (3 inches) long and 5.5 cm (just under 2 inches) wide, and pubescent or white woolly when young. Inflorescences are terminal, with either clusters of 1–4 flowers, or racemes (elongated flower stems) with 4–20 flowers. Flowers are often showy, with 5 white petals (or occasionally pink, yellow, or streaked with red), up to 2.5 cm (1 inch) long. The fruit is a berry-like pome, red to purple to nearly black at maturity, up to 1.5 cm in diameter.
Fruits are edible, and are prized by birds as well as people, and can be eaten fresh or used in pies or jams. Although sometimes insipid, the flavor can be a delightful combination of blueberry and almond flavors with a rose scent, which has inspired one botanical author to wax poetic on its virtues: “It seems quite unnecessary to descant upon the delicacy of its flavor; it is so antecedently improbable that ordinary mortals should ever have an opportunity to enjoy it” (Keeler 1969). The fruits are gathered locally from the wild or from garden plantings, but are not commercially grown.
Most Amelanchiers are found in moist woods, swamps, and along river banks, although a few species grow in drier areas (prairies and barrens). Their fruits are important to at least 40 bird species and many mammals, and leaves are eaten by various insect herbivores. Twigs and foliage are browsed by deer, moose, and elk; heavy browsing in some regions inhibits regeneration.
Amelanchiers are valued for garden and ornamental plantings for their early spring flowers, fall color, and attractive winter bark. Various horticultural varieties and hybrids have been developed. A. spicata, a North American species widely cultivated in European gardens, is invasive in much of Northern Europe.
(Campbell and Doucette 2011, Gleason and Cronquist 1991, Interactive Flora of Northwest Europe 2011, Kabuce and Priede 2011, Keeler 1969, Martin et al. 1951, Soper and Heimburger 1990, Wikpedia 2011)