The common Chokecherry is a large native deciduous shrub that in Minnesota grows to a height of 20 feet.
The bark of larger stems is gray to reddish brown and with age turns darker and becomes furrowed. The bark is aromatic, said to resemble bitter almond when macerated in water. It has medicinal properties - see notes at page bottom.
The alternate leaves are a glossy dark green above turning duller as the season progresses, paler underneath, sometimes with fine hair, and are oval in shape, up to 4 inches long and less than 2 inches wide (larger leaves are less than 2x the length) and without hair on the upper side. Leaf edges are serrate with closely spaced sharp teeth. Lateral leaf veins number 6 to 18 per side (fewer than Wild Cherry, P. serotina). There are distinctive small glands on the leaf stem near the base of the leaf.
The inflorescence is a densely flowered, 2 to 4 inch long cylindrical raceme which may droop downward and grows at the end of last years twig growth. The flowers may appear before the leaves are fully formed.
The flowers are 5-parted, white, 1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter with a very small cup shaped hypanthium with 5 small lobes. The corolla has 5 spreading white petals 2 to 5 mm wide.
Fruit: The flowers mature in late summer into round drupes, up to 1/3 inch in diameter, resembling miniature cherries, and which contain the toxic smooth pit. Ripe fruit can be deep red to dark purple to black.
Types: There are two varieties of the species: Var. virginiana is found east of the Rocky Mountains has shorter racemes, smaller leaves and flower petals and var. demissa found from the Rockies to the West Coast has longer flower racemes, longer petals, 4 to 5 mm, and leaf lenghts at least 2x the width. The species intergrade and the color of the fruit is no longer considered a defining characteristic of the varieties. This last variety, the native of the west, and not done well at the MN Landscape Arboretum trials. A cultivar of known as P. virginiana 'Shubert' has done very well and has a leaf that turns from green to a bronze-purple in late spring. Any of these varieties can be trained to grow as a small tree.
Habitat: Chokecherry grows from rhizomes which spread beyond the plant itself and lead to a suckering habit, forming thickets. Chokecherry adapts to a wide range of soils and moisture conditions but sunny, well drained soils, mesic to dry mesic are best.
Names: The large genus, Prunus, is named after the Latin word for the plum. The species name, virginiana, refers to 'of Virginia' - the state for which this species is named. The author name for the plant classification, 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. In the 19th Century the plant was sometimes classified as Cerasus virginiana, and sometimes as Padus virginiana.
Comparisons: Flowers and fruits resemble the larger tree, Wild Black Cherry, Prunus serotina.
Hazard: The seeds of the plant are toxic, as are the leaves and stems - all contain cyanogenic glycoside. Broken twigs will emit a bitter almond odor. The meat of the drupe is bitter but with the addition of sugar makes a fine jelly but the pits must be removed. Children are most sensitive to the toxin in the pits, leaves and stems. Browsing livestock are also susceptible. More details below. The drupes are very astringent, hence the common name of "choke" cherry.
Above: An example of a large multi-stemmed specimen growing along a old lane. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 1st photo - The cylinder shaped flower cluster. 2nd photo - Semi ripe drupes - ripening time can vary widely depending on the earliness or lateness of spring flowering. In 2011 the above color was found on July 25. In 2012 (shown further below) the cherries were already turning dark on July 1st.
Below: Ripening cherries at the red stage and turning to the mature dark color.
Below: 1st photo - The typical leaf shape of P. virginiana. 2nd photo - The Chokecherry leaf has distinctive small glands on the leaf stem at the base of the leaf.
Below: 1st photo - The underside of the leaf; 2nd photo - a stout mature stem showing the reddish-brown color of age; 3rd photo - a young twig and bud.
Below: 1st photo - The toxic pits of the Chokecherry compared in size to the drupe itself. 2nd photo - Comparison of the relative sizes of the pits of Chokecherry (on the right) and Wild Black Cherry (on the left). Note size and color differences. Both are toxic.
Notes: Chokecherry is indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler noted it in her Garden Log on April 29, 1907 and first planted Chokecherry in the Garden on May 28, 1909 with plants obtained from the Park Board Nursery. Presumably, they have been in the Garden ever since and replanted as necessary, as they appear on all the Garden Census lists. Most recently, Curator Susan Wilkins planted 20 new shrubs in 2008. The Chokecherry is found throughout North America except the very far north and the southern states of LA, MS, AL, FL and SC. In Minnesota it is found throughout the state except for 8 widely scattered counties.
There are six species of Prunus native to Minnesota: P. americana, American Wild Plum; P. nigra, Canadian Plum (or Cherry); P. pensylvanica, Pin Cherry; P. pumila, Sand Cherry; P. serotina var. serotina, Black Cherry; and P. virginiana var. virginiana, Chokecherry. Several introduced species have also been reported.
Medicinal Use: In medicinal use, Densmore (Ref.#5) notes Chokecherry use in her study of the Minnesota Chippewa. They made a decoction of the inner bark for use as a disinfectant and as a gargle for sore throats. Hutchins (Ref.#12) notes that thin young thin bark is the part used medicinally. Water is used as the solvent and a mild tonic and seditive is created. The taste is bitter and astringent. Wild Chokecherry bark was used in cough medicines and was used to treat diarrhoea in children.
Evidence of the bark's medicinal properties is recorded in the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition on June 11, 1805 (Ref.#3b): [Lewis was out with 4 men on an exploring trip of the country surrounding where the Tansy River meets the Missouri.] "They then halted for dinner; Captain Lewis, who had been for some days afflicted with dysentery, was now attacked with violent pains, attended by a high fever, and was unable to go on. He therefore camped for the night under some willow-boughs. Having brought no medicine, he determined to try an experiment with the small twigs of the choke-cherry, which being stripped of their leaves and cut into pieces about two inches long, were boiled in pure water, till they produced a strong black decoction of an astringent bitter taste; a pint of this he took at sunset, and repeated the dose an hour afterward. By ten o'clock he was perfectly relieved from pain, a gentle perspiration ensued, his fever abated, and in the morning he was quite recovered."
Lore and Usage: There is considerable literature on the uses of this plant. Here is a sampling. Like all cherry pits, these contain hydrocyanic acid and the pits must be removed before use. In making jellies, they are best removed by straining after the cooking process. In making jelly or preserves from Chokecherry, Harrington (Ref.#9) reports that any recipe for sour cherry jelly will do as long as you add pectin, as pectin is very low or lacking in the Chokecherry. Some prefer a mixture of half apple juice for a better tasting product. Chokecherry syrup is made using half the pectin used in the jelly recipes (see below). Chokecherry wine is also popular and Harrington gives a recipe. Densmore and also Harrington report that many native American groups would dry the fruit and then pound it into a powder or simple grind it all up, stones and all, and then dry it in the sun in the form of small cakes that could be stored for later use. Adding water later, a sauce would be made. In the dry state it would be mixed with dried meat to form pemmican. The process of grinding and drying seems to have leached out the acid (it dissipates with exposure to air) and avoided digestive problems. Finally, Fernald, (Ref.#6) quotes early colonist William Wood from 1634: "they so furre the mouth that the tongue will cleave to the roofe, and the throate wax horse with swallowing those red Bullies (as I may call them) being little better in taste. English ordering may bring them to be an English Cherrie, but yet they are as wilde as the Indians'."
Here is a recipe for Chokecherry syrup that does not use pectin: Pick a bucket of very ripe chokecherries. Wash them thoroughly. Put them in a large kettle and put enough water in the kettle to keep them from sticking. Simmer until the berries are very soft and mushy. Run the berry mixture through a sieve to remove the seeds. Pour the pulp back into a pan and reheat. Don't let it sick and burn. Add honey to taste and stir well. The syrup will be somewhat pulpy, not clear. It can be frozen in small plastic containers, or canned in a water bath. This syrup retains the distinctive chokecherry flavor and is great on pancakes or waffles. (Recipe courtesy Kelseya, Winter 2001. Montana Native Plant Society.)
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"