Description & Overview
Chokecherry has beautiful drooping, white fragrant flower spikes that bloom in early spring. Red berries follow in the summer, maturing in early fall to a dark red or bluish-black. The fall leaf color is a brilliant, bright red. Chokecherry’s ornamental flowers and value to wildlife make this tree an excellent choice for those making ecologically conscious landscaping decisions, while also wanting aesthetically pleasing options.
You may also know this plant as Bitterberry or Virginia Bird Cherry.
Chokecherry is ornamental, nutritious for wildlife, and stays relatively small. It is an understory tree found in forest ecotypes from Minnesota to Kentucky. It has a variable shape, often suckering and growing in a multi-stem fashion. Plants growing in the shady understory may lean and weave, trying to grow toward the sun. When planted in full sun with plenty of space, they can grow to a nice size, having a rather pleasing, symmetrical oval shape.
Chokecherry is very hardy and found in dry, to moist soil, that can range from acidic to alkaline. It thrives in disturbed soils in open forests, woodlands, slopes, and meadows.
Naturalization/Restoration: Chokecherry is a pioneer species, meaning that it is one of the first species to populate disturbed soils. It easily grows and spreads by producing shoots from rhizomes (underground roots) and its seeds are dispersed by wildlife–excellent traits for a plant to have when someone has cleared their land of Buckthorn and needs to plant natives that will repopulate and replenish the soil. This plant is hardy, growing in many soils and ecotypes, is tolerant of salt and re-sprouts from its rhizomes after being burned by fire. That is one tough plant! On top of its hardiness and ornamental value, Chokecherry attracts pollinators in the spring, is a host plant to many species of butterflies and moths, is a food source to mammals, insects, and birds alike, and provides nesting materials and cover. In short, it is an invaluable resource.
Ornamental/Specimen: Chokecherry has attributes that give ornamental value to a native landscape. Flowers are beautiful in the springtime and berries are ornamental throughout the summer.
Screening/Border: Plant multiples to delineate a property or as a backdrop to other shrubs and perennials. Growing upwards of 30′ tall and 20′ wide, Chokecherry makes an excellent privacy screen while leafed out throughout spring to fall.
Bird Garden: Berries mature late in the season, in time with the beginning of bird migration. Many berries, like Serviceberries, mature in early summer, providing nutrients and simple sugars, that give wildlife a burst of energy. The berries of Chokecherry are high in starch, providing birds with longer-lasting energy that can better fuel them for the long distances they travel during migration. In the earlier parts of the season, Chokecherry provides food and habitat to many insects, which in turn, supply food to insectivorous birds in the spring, summer, and fall.
Erosion Control: Chokecherry has a shallow root system through which it can also reproduce. Its proclivity for disturbed soils makes Chokecherry an excellent candidate for slopes that need erosion protection. Whether along a road, or along a river, Chokecherry has much to offer.
Chokecherry, like cherries in general, is a very valuable food for animals across the food chain. That said, stems, leaves, and seeds contain a chemical that converts into hydrocyanic acid when a stem or leaf is damaged; as when it is gnawed, chewed, and ground in the digestive system. If eaten in large enough quantities, this compound can be fatal. Deaths have been noted in livestock, and sadly, children. It is also important to note that the toxicity of stems lessens as they age, as they produce less and less of this chemical later in the season.
Deer, moose, antelope, bear, coyote, sheep, and elk browse the foliage of Chokecherry. Livestock is known to browse Chokecherry, but deaths have been noted in years when a larger sum was eaten due to a shortage of other options. Rabbits gnaw on saplings. Smaller mammals such as squirrels and mice feed on the seeds while larger species including bear, foxes, raccoons, opossums, and skunks eat the fruit.
Many species of birds eat the fruit. It is astringent and rather tart, though it is said to become slightly more palatable as it matures and is very high in carbohydrates. The fruit matures in early fall, coinciding with a time when many birds are getting ready for migration. These fruits are a solid option to provide birds with the exact type of nutrition that they will need for the long flight south. Quail, turkey, grouse, Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Cedar Waxwings, several species of woodpecker, and many more eat the fruits. The stems and leaves are used in nests.
Many plants of the genus Prunus are used by many, many insects. Chokecherry is no exception. This is the larval host to the Columbia Silkmoth and Eastern Swallowtail. The caterpillars of Red-spotted Purple, Coral Hairstreak, Cherry Shoot Borer, and much more feed on the foliage. Tent caterpillars in the Northeast prefer Chokeberry. Native Halictid and Andrenid bees, Bumblebees, and flies take nectar and pollen in early spring. Aphids, gall flies, and beetles all feed on Chokecherry.
Keep the soil evenly moist from spring until fall and apply a layer of mulch to prevent weeds and keep the roots cool. To achieve the best form and fastest growth rate, keep the area surrounding Chokecherry clear of possible competition.
Snipping of dead, diseased, or damaged branches and stems can be done at any time of the year but prune as little as possible. The best time to prune Chokecherry is after the flowers have bloomed. You can prune in the late winter/early spring, but you could lose some branches with flowering buds. Underground roots send runners which can be cut back when they appear if spread is unwanted.
Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: No
Rabbit Resistant: No
Chokecherry is delicious to wildlife and is a buffet for countless insects. Some are beneficial, others are rather undesirable, but none are fatal. Aphids, caterpillars, leafhoppers, Japanese Beetles, and more will feed on the leaves. Numbers may vary year after year. If you have planted Chokecherry to benefit wildlife, do not use typical pesticide treatments. Japanese Beetles are difficult to control with sprays anyway. The best approach is to pick them off and put them in a cup of soapy water. Milky spore, the common name for the bacteria B. popilliae, which infects and kills grubs is also a pretreatment option. It doesn’t work on contact and isn’t instantaneous, but it does help in the battle against the beetle. To be effective, it must be applied in spring when the soil warms to above 55 degrees.
Remember – any spray will likely affect many beneficial species – always do your research and read the label.
Rabbits will nibble off new growth during winter or early spring – you may want to encircle it with chicken wire until the tree is more mature.
Chokecherries can be susceptible to a fungus called black knot (Apiosporina morbosa) that creates large black galls on the trunks and stems. Cracks created by the black knot can create access for other fungi which can result in more damage. Less susceptible trees may not be affected while susceptible trees may lose foliage along the stems above the galls. Do not purchase trees with visible black galls and do not plant Chokecherries in areas where black knot is present. Stems containing galls can be physically removed to prevent the further spread of spores in winter.
Chokecherry wood is weak and susceptible to damage in wind and ice storms.
The genus Prunus also contains many fruit–bearing plants found in grocery stores like plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and almonds. Another common name, Virginia Bird Cherry, says it all; leave the chokecherries for the birds!
A green dye can be produced from the leaves and inner bark. A purple-red dye can be made from the fruit.
Chokecherry is naturally found in the understory with Red Oak, Shagbark Hickory, Paper Birch, Red Pine, Sugar Maple, and Basswood. Other understory plants in these areas include Pagoda Dogwood and Mountain Maple.
Chokecherry is tolerant of many conditions. If in a full sun location, it can be planted alongside Running Serviceberry, Redosier Dogwood, Common Snowberry, or American Elderberry. Use them together to create a mixed border.