Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
In the fullness of summer and in the depths of winter, chokecherry is not particularly noticeable. By early June, it has all but disappeared as part of the anonymous expanse of greenness that edges roads and woods and fills in abandoned fields. In winter, too, the twigs blend in with their surroundings. But for a brief time in spring, usually mid-May in our area, this shrub puts on a dazzling display of showy, white flowers. They are in compact bottle-brush-shaped racemes, erect or nodding, each one with a hundred or so tiny flowers, and they bloom when the leaves are about half-grown.
It’s then that you can see that this is a very successful shrub. A variety of habitats are brightened by the whiteness of innumerable chokecherries. It does well on moist or dry sites, sites that are sunny to partly shady, on good soils or the depleted soil often found on abandoned pastures. It is a stalwart of the hedgerow community. Chokecherry ranges from the Yukon to New Mexico and from British Columbia to Newfoundland, though plants in the East and West are considered to be different varieties.
Though usually a multi-stemmed shrub, chokecherry is capable of treelike stature and occasionally grows to 20 feet in height. But when it is large and single-stemmed, the trunk tends to be wiggly and have a pronounced lean, revealing its true shrubby nature.
However lovely the flowers, chokecherry is even more beautiful in the autumn, when its shining fruits turn from green to red and then proceed to develop their final, rich purple color. Fruit production is reliable and prodigious: often the branches are bent with the weight of many cherries. Over 70 bird species are known to eat chokecherry, and it is a preferred food for many of them.
The mouth-puckering astringency that deters people from eating the juicy fruits seems not to bother other animals. Robins, thrushes, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, jays, bluebirds, catbirds, kingbirds, and grouse eat chokecherries, and so do mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, foxes, deer, bear, and moose.
Chokecherry’s popularity assures the widespread distribution of its seeds, most of which remain viable after journeying through a digestive system. Once established, a chokecherry spreads by underground rhizomes. Over time, a single seed can produce a large, dense thicket, benefiting many wildlife species in another way – by providing cover.
The twigs and foliage are eaten by many wild animals but in large quantities are toxic to cattle and sheep. Typically, domestic animals only run into a problem if other forage is scarce.
Many people who can recognize all manner of trees and herbaceous plants seem to think shrub ID is best left to specialists. This is especially not true in the chokecherry case. The twigs of all three of the cherry species in our area – pin cherry, black cherry, and chokecherry – have a diagnostic, almond smell when crushed and a bitter taste when chewed, so, if you have a twig, you can easily determine whether or not it is from a cherry.
Chokecherry is by far the shrubbiest of the cherries; pin cherry is a small tree, and black cherry grows to be a large one. Chokecherry is the only cherry with egg-shaped leaves; the leaves of the two others are more slender, and the underside of a black cherry leaf has peculiar tufts of fur on either side of the midrib. To be more precise, chokecherry leaves are obovate, which means that the leaves are broadest above the middle. And egg-shaped only describes the rough outline: unlike eggs, the leaves have pointy tips and small, sharp teeth.
Only members of the genus Prunus, the cherries and plums, are afflicted by the fungus called black knot, one of the most conspicuous of all tree diseases and another good way to identify a cherry. Elongated, black, misshapen galls surround the twigs, and badly affected trees look as though the contents of several pooper scoopers had been flung into their branches.
Most people quickly grasp the appropriateness of this plant’s name if they eat the raw fruits. But fully ripened cherries, when mixed with some sugar and then cooked, make good jelly, juice, and pies.