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Common Chokecherry Prunus virginiana


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Common Chokecherry, flowers and leaves
credit: Teresa Prendusi, U.S. Forest Service

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Family: Rosaceae, Rose view all from this family

Description Also called chokecherry, bitter-berry, or Virginia bird cherry, this small tree is native to North America, where it is found almost throughout the continent except for the Deep South and the far north.

It is a suckering shrub or small tree growing to 5 m tall. The leaves are oval, 3–10 cm long, with a coarsely serrated margin. The flowers are produced in racemes of 15-30 in late spring (well after leaf emergence). The fruit are about 1 cm diameter, range in color from bright red to black, with a very astringent, sour taste. The very ripe berries are dark in color and less astringent than the red berries.

The chokeberries, genus Aronia, are often mistakenly called chokecherries. This naming confusion is easy to understand considering there is a cultivar of the chokecherry Prunus virginiana 'Melanocarpa' and a species of chokeberry named Aronia melanocarpa. In fact, the two plants are not close relatives within their subfamily Spiraeoideae.

Chokecherries are very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, such as anthocyanins. They share this property with chokeberries, further contributing to confusion. The wild chokecherry is often considered a pest, as it is a host for the tent caterpillar, a threat to other fruit plants.

Prunus virginiana is sometimes divided into two varieties, P. virginiana var. virginiana (the eastern chokecherry), and P. virginiana var. demissa (the western chokecherry).

The chokecherry is closely related to the black cherry (Prunus serotina) of eastern North America; it is most readily distinguished from that by its smaller size (black cherry trees can reach 30 m tall), smaller leaves, and sometimes red ripe fruit. The chokecherry leaf has a finely serrated margin and is dark green above with a paler underside, while the black cherry leaf has numerous blunt edges along its margin and is dark green and smooth.

For many Native American tribes of the Northern Rockies, Northern Plains, and boreal forest region of Canada and the United States, chokecherries were the most important fruit in their diets.

Warning The seeds of all Prunus species, found inside the fruits, contain poisonous substances and should never be eaten. Sensitivity to a toxin varies with a personís age, weight, physical condition, and individual susceptibility. Children are most vulnerable because of their curiosity and small size. Toxicity can vary in a plant according to season, the plantís different parts, and its stage of growth; and plants can absorb toxic substances, such as herbicides, pesticides, and pollutants from the water, air, and soil. Wilted foliage of this and other cherries occasionally contains hydrocyanic acid that can poison livestock.

Habitat Fields, Mountains, Watersides (fresh).

Range Rocky Mountains, Texas, Alaska, New England, California, Plains, Southwest, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Northwest, Southeast, Western Canada.

Comments Chokecherry is remarkably shade tolerant and has impressive resilience under variable growing conditions. Branches break off easily in ice storms. Western material is var. demissa and var. melanocarpa.

Exposure Preference Sun to shade.

Flower February - April (in south); April - May (in north)

Native Distribution Newfoundland. to British Columbia, s. to North Carolina, Tennessee, n. Arkansas, Texas & s. California

Site Preference Moist woods; stream banks; prairie hillsides; fence rows; rocky bluffs; roadsides

Soil Preference Rich, moist soils. pH 6.5-7.5.

Wildlife Value Cherries are a major food source for hundreds of bird, mammal, and butterfly species. Thickets provide valuable cover. The plants are often used for nesting sites. Twigs provide winter deer browse.