My Serviceberries are Out of Service

Because of rabbits, I need to replace the three ‘Autumn Brilliance’ serviceberries (Amelanchier x arborea) that stand along the west hedge of our lightly shaded back garden.

Serviceberry foliage shows even brighter against the green hedge on our west property line. Some misguided pruning accounts for the odd shapes.
All three of these serviceberries have been done in by rabbits.  Felonious pruning accounts for the odd shapes.


This past winter was so long and the snow so deep, the rabbits ended up chewing even more of the bark off some of their favorite trees than they normally do. They are especially fond of serviceberries, dogwoods (Cornus), crabapples (Malus), and most fruit trees. I noticed they generally stayed away from the spicebush (Lindera benzoin), fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), and Viburnums.

When rabbits girdle small trees, chewing the bark around the entire circumference, the tree is a goner. That’s because the vascular tissues are interrupted, blocking the transport of water, nutrients, and sugars between roots and leaves.

On the bright side: when I first planted two of these serviceberries I did a criminally bad job of pruning them, so this is an opportunity to get rid of the embarrassing results. Note: don’t prune your new trees and shrubs by just lopping off the top three feet of the main stems. If you do you will find yourself referring to the unfortunate plant as Igor.

Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance'
Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’ flowers

So the question now is: what should I replace the dying serviceberries with? Has to be shade tolerant, less than 20′ tall, and I prefer something with more of an upright shape. Also, wildlife value is important to me. Here are some possibilities.

  • More Serviceberries! I do love this plant, after all.  Beautiful white flowers in early spring, berries for the birds, and gorgeous fall color all make this a fantastic small tree. However, I would have to be very vigilant on the rabbit front. For one thing, I need to find something other than chicken wire to wrap around the base. I really don’t like working with chicken wire, it can give nasty scratches if you don’t wear gloves, which I often don’t.
  • Wayfaringtree Viburnum (Viburnum lantana). Nice white flowers, multi-colored berries, and decent fall color. Also viburnums seem to be less attractive to rabbits.
Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum
Cranberrybush Viburnum flowers
  • Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum). I actually have some of these already along the alley fence. Like the wayfaringtree except with red berries that can be translucent and are supposed to be a favorite of cedar waxwings.
Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum
Cranberrybush Viburnum fall color
  • Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). I have it on good authority that this is another tree considered a tasty treat by rabbits. Another small tree with white flowers in April and good fall color. The glossy red fruits look really nice and last well into winter.
  • Hybrid Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia). Maybe ‘Arnold’s Promise’ or ‘Diane’. There are no witch hazels in our garden, and that makes me feel deprived. Another rabbit magnet, though, from what I hear.

Thoughts? Suggestions?


57 Comments on “My Serviceberries are Out of Service

  1. All outstanding replacements for sure! I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of them! Those rabbits did a number on my black haw viburnums along my fence. This has been the story of many of my neighbors after this intense winter. Look forward to seeing what you choose! Happy Thursday to you! Nicole

  2. My first thought was actually Witch Hazel…or the related Fothergilla…beautiful plants…but if they are also rabbit fodder…hmmm. I do love Viburnum trilobum…such great fall color. If you want something a bit bigger (tree-size), what about Cercidiphyllum japonicum (katsura tree). They are beautiful in all seasons and the fall foliage smells like cotton candy…for real!

  3. Can’t go wrong with any of those. I love serviceberry although we called them Saskatoons when I was a kid =D

    • I think saskatoons are actually a different species of the genus, Amelanchier alnifolia. There are varieties you can plant specifically for fruit production.

      • Well I have learned something today! We used to pick the pomes for eating when I was a kid. When I saw the flowering shrubs here in the U.S. they looked so much alike I made an assumption that they were the same plant. oops

  4. Those pesky rabbits. We didn’t have much luck with chokeberries, both because of shade and rabbits. The serviceberry really does look nice in that spot. Is your yard fenced? We ran chicken wire along the bottom of the picket fence and that has really helped. The really determined ones will get in, but not nearly as many as I had before. Putting wire around each plant became really tedious, and tore up my arms.

    • We do have a picket fence, hadn’t thought about putting chicken wire along it. You’re right about putting wire around each plant.

  5. I just saw Scott’s ideas–the rabbits have never touched my Viburnum trilobums ( and they don’t seem to mind the shade). Fothergilla, on the other hand, they ate to the ground every year. It was never more than a miniature shrub and then finally didn’t come back. It was like rabbit candy in my yard.

  6. The rabbits took out my lace leaf Japanese Maple by girdling it in SUMMER. So one may expect winter damage but this was unexpected. They never bothered the Viburnum though.

  7. Stewartia is a lovely small shade-tolerant tree. I have no idea if it is rabbit-tolerant or appropriate for your zone, though. I’ll look forward to seeing what you choose!

  8. Viburnum plicatum is so much prettier than lantana. Or Viburnum opulus, the snowball tree. I believe rabbits aren’t keen on the strawberry tree: Arbutus unedo or something prickly like Holly, Berberis or Mahonia.

    • I don’t really like the look of hollies or berberis. I’d have to see if Mahonia is available locally. I’ll take a look at Viburnum plicatum.

  9. Can you grow redbud? I just purchased Cercis canadensis ‘Merlot’ and am in love! It has purple leaves that hold bold color all summer. (So I’ve been told.) Or perhaps red buckeye, Aesculus pavia, humming birds love it.

    • We can grow redbud, in fact we used to have one that died a messy death a few years back. I’m looking for something with more of an upright shape, though. I’d love to have a red buckeye, not sure this is the right place for it, though.

  10. Rabbits are so destructive! The trouble is they haven’t read the gardening manual, so in some winters I see them munch their way through supposedly rabbit resistant plants. I like the idea of Viburnum too. Can you grow Syringa vulgaris in your garden?

  11. I love your description of your pruning mistakes — made me laugh! I have ‘Diane’ witch hazel and if you plant one, be prepared for the fact that it holds its brown leaves all winter and into spring and is kind of ugly. I think it loses leaf persistence as it ages, but mine is 8 years old and a brown mess until summer. I also have aronia, and the rabbits do chomp the stems.

    Some suggestions: replant the serviceberries but coat the stems with Tanglefoot in fall. It’s a very sticky goop to keep crawling insects away, but might discourage rabbits. Or plant a dogwood, but a shade lover like Cornus alternifolia, very horizontal branching, delicate and gorgeous. One commenter offered Aesculus pavia, red buckeye, and that’s a great one. Also Viburnum prunifolium, (blackhaw) — I’m pruning mine into small trees by removing lower branches and suckers, and as a little tree it is as pretty as the serviceberries!

    How about bottlebrush buckeye — it’s a big rangy shrub, but beautiful and it likes shade. Not tree-shaped though.

    • Cornus alternifolia doesn’t seem to like the summers here and tends to get anthracnose. I have some blackhaw already, so that’s a possibility. Bottlebrush buckeye sounds good, though the shape is a problem.

  12. I second the redbud suggestion, if it is hardy in your area. It’s native and the bees adore it. And if green leaves bore you, you can find a gold leafed or a burgundy leafed variety.

  13. Redbud (Cercis canadensis), gorgeous fuschia early spring flower, bright golden fall foliage, and interesting pea pod seeds all winter; Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium), white spring flowers, red berries, if you have more than one tree, brilliant fall foliage, as red as a Burning Bush. and interesting branching pattern in winter; or Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), bright golden fall leaves and after they fall the bare branches are covered with bright golden flowers in November. These are all native to the Chicago region and you will nor find any large shrubs or small trees as striking as these are.

  14. These are all great choices but I have a soft spot for Viburnum trilobum. The berries are beautiful and make yummy jam and the smell of the bush in autumn is very sweet and distinctive. Love Diane Witch Hazel too for her pretty blooms and awesome autumn color!

  15. Jason, I have no rabbit proof suggestion but can report my second hand copy of Colour for Gardeners was delivered today, for the bargain price of 99p, less than a dollar I think and am delighted that you introduced this book to me.

  16. Jason, I’m not experienced enough, rabbit damage or small trees for that matter to offer suggestions but want to say good luck with what ever you choose. You’ve given some great suggestions and been offered some great alternative.

  17. Rabbits girdled both my chokeberry and serviceberry, not killing either of them but permanently stunting them. I *think* about replacing them but never have. Keep us posted on what you choose. (If chicken wire did not keep the rabbits away, maybe it was voles? Hardware cloth may work better.)

    • Actually, I didn’t protect two of the serviceberries, I assumed the rabbits wouldn’t go after them because they were too big and mature. The third I did protect, but the rabbits had already done some damage.

  18. I love my Viburnum carlesii for many reasons, not the least of which is its heavenly scent. I have it planted by our entrance arbor and it’s just blooming now here in the Northwest. The Chicago Botanic Garden describes the scent as sweet, rich, and complex with a hint of cloves! More info here:

    No rabbit problems for me; here it’s deer! Have you thought of using the commercial plastic tree bark trunk product? You may be able to fashion a circle around your young shrubs or trees with multiple trunks by banging in some rebar and using that to support the mesh:

    • V. carlesii is definitely on my must-have list! Not sure if this spot has enough sun for them, though. Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out.

  19. Oh, what SHAME! I do love rabbits but don’t have them destroying my plants thankfully….maybe you should leave some veg out for them to eat, carrots and cabbage….
    I bought a witch hazel last autumn, I’ve never had one before and I must say it’s delightful, the flowers were lovely and now the leaves are out, such a wonderful shade of

    • I tried planting a witch hazel once before … but the rabbits chewed it down to the ground. Still, I hanker after one or three.

  20. How sad – naughty rabbits. I do love witchhazels, but have no idea how they’ll fare in the bunny battle.

  21. They all look lovely, but I’d go for somethig the rabbits don’t like. I wonder if the viburnum also smells nice. I have seen rush matting wrapped around newly planted trees here. That might help and is barely noticeable.

  22. I’ve always used hardware cloth but I think you can get plastic rabbit guards now too. I can guarantee that they won’t get through hardware cloth but I don’t know much about the plastic kind. If you use it, you should put it on at planting time and bury the hardware cloth in the soil about 6 inches or so to keep voles out too.

    • I’ll have to look into the plastic rabbit guards. Luckily there don’t seem to be moles around, though we do have chipmunks and mice.

  23. All good choices. Personally, when I have to replace plants, I’m going with plants the rabbits don’t like. But if you choose a vulnerable one, you can always wrap it next winter. That’s what I’m planning to do with my Lilacs, which the rabbits have decimated two winters in a row now. Have fun making your selection!

  24. Oh, I love my Cranberry Viburnum and my resident (wild) Rabbits leave him alone – fast grower, too. There are still some beautiful red berries clinging to the branches even after this horrible Winter! My common Witch Hazel on the other hand is a favorite dining stop for the rabbits and I fear may not make it. I have Serviceberry Laevis and protect it because it does have a tree trunk and is not shrubby – so far has survived the rabbits. The rabbits almost girdled my Pin Oak when I was unaware but I caught it in time and now it is growing really well. I also love Chokeberry. I would love to plant a Redbud but out of room and not sure if it would be a rabbit favorite, but I think it might fit your requirements. I am afraid I am not much help because I love all trees and shrubs!

  25. Viburnums do give you so many choices, and I don’t think you could go wrong.
    Have you considered waiting with the serviceberries? They may be girdled, but if you trim them back completely to the ground they’ll sprout rapidly from the roots (and likely with a better form). You have to cut them back though, if the tops are left they will sap the energy of the roots by putting out leaves and not returning any sugars to the roots (thereby starving them).
    I’m doing that with my blueberries this year, or rather the rabbits did this to my blueberries…..

    • I don’t think I want to cut them to the ground and wait for them to grow back, though that might work (as long as I keep the rabbits from eating them). Leaning towards cranberrybush at the moment.

  26. I have had to wrap my trees or net them so the deer and rabbits stay away…the deer did some munching on some still but not enough to hurt any…it is the only way I can grow these same trees until they are bigger than the rabbits.

  27. This is the only year I’ve been troubled by bunnies and, oh my, what damage they have wrought! Roses have been particularly affected, also Salix humilis, even my 15 year old Tree Peony. Mostly what they do is girdle the stem and eat all the bark, but tips are also nibbled (Hazelnut) making me think of deer damage. Sometimes the damage is quite severe in the interior of my well established roses. Now, how do they get in there without leaving some evidence (tufts of bunny hair)? It really has me puzzled.

    Tanglefoot? I may have to look for that this fall.

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