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This resilient large shrub or small understory tree is a wildlife powerhouse in sun or part shade. Showy, almond-scented clusters of white flowers in early summer are followed by edible, blue-black fruits in early fall. Chokecherry is also known as bitter-berry and Virginia bird cherry because the astringent fruits are an important food source for birds. Though the berries are sour when eaten raw, they are delicious when sweetened with sugar and cooked into jams or jellies. Take care never to consume the seeds raw, as they are toxic unless cooked. Chokecherry prefers deep, moist soils, but it will grow 8-25 feet tall in a wide range of soils, and it tolerates drought once established. It spreads by suckers to form thickets and is often used to stabilize stream banks and gullies. Its dense foliage, branching, and suckering habit make it ideal for windbreaks, and many species of wildlife browse the plant or use it for cover and nesting. While birds are not affected by the toxins in chokecherry, cattle and sheep are sometimes fatally poisoned by eating large amounts of the plant. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “All chokecherry trees are “toxic” but not all parts, not all the time, and not to all species. The poisonous cyanide-producing compounds build up when the plants are grown under certain conditions, such as in high nitrogen/low phosphorus soil, just before pollination, or when the plant is damaged.” 

 

Native habitats include thickets on hillsides, foothills, banks of mountain streams, canyons, forest borders, clearings, and roadsides. It’s commonly used for erosion control or shrub borders, as an understory tree, and in open woodland gardens.

 

Plant Characteristics:   

Grows 8-25’ tall and 15-20’ wide.

 

Grows in full sun or part shade. 

 

Prefers moist, fertile soils but adapts to sandy, loamy, and clay soils.  

 

Long, dense clusters of white flowers bloom April-July. Each flower is 2-4” long and has 5 rounded petals, 5 sepals, and many stamens. Flowers are followed by dark red fruits, each about ½” wide, that ripen to blue-black in August and September.

 

Alternate, elliptical/oval leaves are 1 to 3 ½” long, shiny green above, and light green and sometimes hairy underneath. Edges are finely serrated, and fall color is bright yellow to orange. Slender leaf stalks have two gland-dots. 

 

Bark on young tree trunks and branches is smooth and brown with prominent lenticels; on older trees, trunk bark is grayish brown and somewhat scaly or wrinkled. 

 

Wildlife Value:   

Plants in the Prunus genus are considered keystone plants. They host 381 species of Lepidoptera larva, including specialist coral hairstreak butterfly and large lace-border moth, whose caterpillars are a twig mimic (see photo).  Chokecherry fruits, leaves, and twigs are consumed by birds and mammals, including coyotes, deer, foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, squirrels, and chipmunks.   

 

Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:   

Both Native Americans and early settlers used the bark and roots to make sedatives, blood-fortifying tonics, appetite stimulants, and medicinal teas for treating coughs, tuberculosis, malaria, stomachaches, diarrhea, and intestinal worms. The bark is sometimes used as a flavoring agent in cough syrup. 

 

For many Native American tribes of Canada and the United States, chokecherries are the most important fruit in their traditional diets and are part of pemmican, a traditional food.

 

Chokecherries are very high in antioxidant compounds such as anthocyanins. The fruits can be used to make preserves, syrups, and wines.  

 

The hard wood was used for arrows, bows, and pipe stems. 

 

Warning: New growth, wilted leaves, or plant parts that are injured by frost or drought are poisonous to cattle and humans. Toxicity is highest during the spring and summer, and leaves are mostly non-toxic by the time fruits mature (until a frost wilts the leaves). 

 

Children have been fatally poisoned after ingesting large quantities of raw berries, which contain the seeds. Seeds are toxic unless cooked.

Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana var. virginiana

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