Photo Credit
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Chokecherry

Scientific name
Prunus virginiana
Also Known As
Black chokecherry, California chokecherry, Red chokecherry, Virginia chokecherry
Plant Family
Chokecherry has white flowers that are distinctive because they are attached on stems forming long racemes. Most other cherries have flowers in short rounded clusters.
Identification Hints

Chokecherry is distinctive in having flowers attached on stems forming long racemes. Most other cherries have flowers in short rounded clusters. In the Great Plains to the east black cherry (Prunus serotina) is similar in appearance. It can be a much larger tree up to 25 meters (80 feet) tall, and has sepals which persist with the fruits, has narrow leaves, and usually has brown to whitish hairs along the midrib on the lower side of the leaf.

Did You Know?

Chokecherry was first cultivated in North America as an orchard crop in the early 1700's. It provided a staple for Native American tribes. Prussic (hydrocyanic) acid is found in the bark, leaves, and pits of chokecherry and there are numerous reports of cattle dying after eating these parts of the plant. The acid in chokecherry pits is neutralized by boiling or drying. The bark is used as a tea. The fruit is used to make jellies and jams. It has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, including relief of diarrhea and sore throat.

Leaves
The leaves are alternate, oval-shaped, with fine teeth along the margins. They are glossy green on the tops and paler green underneath. Leaves start to emerge in early spring. Leaves start to change color to a yellow in August to September and have generally fallen/withered by the end of October.
Flowers
Flowers are characteristic of the Rose family, with 5 white petals and many stamens. They are aromatic and showy. Individual flowers are 0.25 to 0.5 in (0.6 to 1.25 cm) long; clusters of flowers form 5 to 6 in (12.5 to 15 cm) long racemes (a structure where the oldest flowers are near the base and the newest flowers emerge as the shoot grows; racemes have indeterminate growth). Flowers start appearing before the leaves are fully developed, from April to July.
Fruits
Fruits are drupes (fleshy fruit with a stone in the center) and are generally found in clusters. Small ripe cherries range in color from dark red to bluish-purple to almost black. Fruits form a couple of months after the flowers emerge.
Bark
Bark of young trees may vary from gray to a reddish brown. As it ages the bark turns darker, into brownish black and becomes noticeably furrowed. Bark is distinctly marked by horizontal rows of raised air pores (lenticels) which develop into shallow grooves with maturity.
Habitat
Chokecherry is present in a variety of habitats and may become weedy. It prefers to grow in aspen groves, scrub, oak/pine woodlands, coniferous forests, ravines, rocky slopes, canyons, and along the edges of creeks. It is mostly found on moist soils, but can be found in old fields, uncultivated field edges, and dry, exposed sites. It can also grow well on sandy soils. Chokecherry prefers full sun to partial shade and is intolerant of full shade.