Prunus virginiana var. virginiana (eastern chokecherry) in bloom
Prunus virginiana, L.
Not to be confused with Aronia, also called chokeberries.
Prunus virginiana, commonly called bitter-berry,chokecherry,Virginia bird cherry and western chokecherry (also black chokecherry for P. virginiana var. demissa), is a species of bird cherry (Prunus subgenus Padus) native to North America; the natural historic range of P. virginiana includes most of the continent, except for the far north and far south.
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Chokecherry is a suckering shrub or small tree growing to 16 feet tall. The leaves are oval, 1.25-4 in. 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 .4 inch diameter, range in color from bright red to black, with a very astringent taste, being both somewhat sour and somewhat bitter. The very ripe berries are dark in color and less astringent and more sweet than the red berries.
The chokeberries, genus Aronia, are sometimes confused with chokecherries due to their name, but chokecherries are in the Rosaceae family, Prunus genus while chokeberries are in the Rosaceae family, Photinia genus.
Chokecherries are very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, such as anthocyanins. They share this property with chokeberries, further contributing to confusion.
Prunus virginiana is sometimes divided into two varieties, P. virginiana var. virginiana (the eastern chokecherry), and P. virginiana var. demissa (the western chokecherry).
The wild chokecherry is often considered a pest, as it is a host for the tent caterpillar, a threat to other fruit plants. However, there are more appreciated cultivars of the chokecherry, such as 'Goertz', which has a nonastringent, and therefore palatable, fruit. Research at the University of Saskatchewan seeks to find and create new cultivars to increase production and processing.
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 100 feet 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.
The name chokecherry has also been used (as Amur chokecherry) for the related Manchurian cherry or Amur cherry (Prunus maackii).
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. The bark of chokecherry root was once made into an asperous-textured concoction used to ward off or treat colds, fever and stomach maladies by native Americans The inner bark of the chokecherry, as well as red osier dogwood, or alder, was also used by Native Americans in their smoking mixtures, known as kinnikinnick, to improve the taste of the bearberry leaf. The chokecherry fruit can be used to make a tasty jam, jelly, or syrup, but the bitter nature of the fruit requires sugar to sweeten the preserves.
Chokecherry is toxic to horses, and moose, cattle, goats, deer, and other animals with segmented stomachs (rumens), especially after the leaves have wilted (such as after a frost or after branches have been broken) because wilting releases cyanide and makes the plant sweet. About 10-20 lbs of foliage can be fatal. Symptoms of a horse that has been poisoned include heavy breathing, agitation, and weakness. The leaves of the chokecherry serve as food for caterpillars of various Lepidoptera. See List of Lepidoptera which feed on Prunus.
In 2007, Governor John Hoeven signed a bill naming the chokecherry the official fruit of the state of North Dakota, in part because its remains have been found at more archeological sites in the Dakotas than anywhere else.
Chokecherry is also used to craft wine in the western United States mainly in the Dakotas and Utah as well as in Manitoba, Canada.