1204 Prunus virginianaCommon Names: chokecherry, common chokecherry, chokeberry Family: Rosaceae (rose Family)
Chokecherry is a shrub or a small tree, often suckering, that gets up to 30 ft (9 m) tall and can have a canopy spread up to 25 ft (7.5 m) across. The mature tree has a rounded but irregular crown. The trunk is usually crooked and rarely more than 8 in (20 cm) in diameter. The slender branches are also crooked and they lack thorns. The deciduous leaves, around 4 inches (10 cm) long, are broadly elliptical and glossy dark green until fall when they turn shades of red or purple before dropping. The leaves, which are arranged alternately on the branches, have fine, sharply pointed teeth along their margins. The flowers, which appear in late spring, are cup shaped with five snowy white petals. They are only about a half inch (1.25 cm) across, but borne in dense racemes up to 6 in (15 cm) long. The elongate clusters can contain up to 30 flowers. Spherical red or dark purplish red (sometimes yellow or black) berries, a little less than a half inch (1.25 cm) in diameter, are produced in late summer and autumn. They are juicy and both astringent and sour, and each contains a single egg shaped stone.
Chokecherry can be distinguished from the many other white flowered cherries and plums by the facts that (1) its flowers are borne in elongated clusters rather than produced singly or grouped in rounded clusters, (2) because it has deciduous rather than evergreen leaves, and (3) because the leaves have sharp pointed teeth rather than blunt pointed teeth as does black cherry (Prunus serotina), which also is a larger tree.
The most widely available cultivar probably is ‘Shubert’, which has leaves that turn dark reddish purple in summer, then almost brown in autumn. ‘Xanthocarpa’ has yellow fruits. ‘Nana’ is a dwarf and ‘Pendula’ has drooping branches.
Prunus virginiana, or chokecherry, is a very widespread species across the northern half of North America. It occurs naturally from California to Virginia, and northward across Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Its range extends further south in the Rocky Mountains to New Mexico and in the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia. Chokecherry grows in the open, along roadsides, fence rows and the edges of forests. With seeds dispersed by birds, chokecherry is considered a pioneer species, one of the first woody plants to establish itself in abandoned crop land, cut-over forests and old fields.
Light: Chokecherry does best in full sun. Moisture: Chokecherry grows best in moisture retentive soils and may benefit from supplemental watering during prolonged droughts. Hardiness: USDA Zones 2 - 7. Chokecherry is a cool climate shrub or tree and can be susceptible to various diseases in warm, humid areas. Propagation: Chokecherry can be propagated by rooting young greenwood stem tips. Seeds should be planted outside as soon as they ripen. Any birds in the neighborhood will surely help propagate this fecund little tree.
Chokecherry is well suited to the woodland edge or the naturalistic woodland garden. It also makes a nice specimen tree for a small landscape, and is effective in small groupings. It probably will be necessary to control its suckering tendency, though. The white flowers are pretty in spring, the burgundy leaves equally pretty in autumn, and the (usually) red-purple berries are relished by grouse, pheasants, quail and may kinds of song birds. Deer browse the young twigs and leaves. Chokecherry is a fast growing and short lived tree, but well worth having in your neighborhood. Wine and a tart jelly can be made from the berries. Some cultivars are said to have non-astringent fruits.
Chokecherry, and other species of Prunus, are sometimes defoliated by hoards of voracious caterpillars, including especially eastern tent caterpillars. However, the trees almost always recover, and the caterpillars are eaten by birds and if not, the moths that mature from the caterpillars are eaten by bats.
There are more than 400 species of Prunus, a genus in the rose family that includes plums, cherries, peaches, apricots and almonds. Most occur in the Northern Hemisphere temperate zones, but a few are found in the Andes.
Steve Christman 11/26/13