Photo by author
Sour but Sweet. This is a small, very hardy deciduous tree native to North America. Gardeners like its sturdiness, manageable size, and clouds of white bloom. It can be trained as a tree with a single trunk or allowed to grow as a shrub with many stems rising from the base of the plant.
Chokecherry has a vast range. It grows wild from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean across the northern half of the U.S. and across an equally broad swatch of Canada where it reaches as far north as Zone 3. A range this big is often a guarantee that a tree is reliable in many kinds of soil and local weather.
Chokecherry grows best in regions with cool to warm summers. It struggles and does poorly in regions with hot and humid summers (roughly Zone 6 and warmer) where it may suffer from leaf diseases, insects and bagworms.
In bloom, the tree almost turns white. The flowers are small but grow on the twigs and branches of the canopy, packed together in long clusters that point in all directions, often almost touching.
The flowers give way to small fruits that are usually described as “astringent.” I’d say that’s too mild a word. They are so acidic that they are almost inedible. Hence the name chokecherry. (Our ancestors had a gift for names.)
If you like to eat lemons, you might try chokecherries. Be careful not to crush or swallow the seeds. They contain a fair amount of cyanide. Is there a reason to eat the fruits? A fruit as wild as the chokecherry often has plenty of nutrients, and the chokecherry, indeed, is very high in anti-oxidants. But so are blueberries, and they are edible.
Some folks cook with chokecherries. They bruise and warm the fruits at low heat to render their juice. Then these adventurous cooks strain the juice to remove the seeds and pulp. With enough sugar, the juice makes strong jams and jellies. If you know other uses, please go to chokecherry in the YourGardenShow plant database and leave a Comment.
The wide range of the chokecherry is a chief reason that the National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) chose it as one of twenty “Calibration” plants. Volunteer observers record the date of events in the seasonal growth of these plants. For chokecherry these include: an emerging leaf in three locations on the plant, open flowers in three locations, ripe fruits in three locations (ripeness being indicated by color, usually dark red or black).
USA-NPN and its volunteers are building a record of “plant response to environmental change.” Plants like the chokecherry are trustworthy indicators of the weather of the growing season and, over many years, the climate. If chokecherries bloom earlier in the first years of this century than they did in the last years of the last century, they are almost certainly sending us a signal about global warming.
Gardeners, meanwhile, have the opportunity of using USA-NPN’s data to time the sowing of their crops and late plantings by observing shrubs and trees. We time sowing and planting mainly by intuition and experience, but it would be a comfort to know that you can sow peas as early as the first three buds open on, say, the chokecherry on the property line, because it knows more about climate than we do. If you are already using phenology and the USA-NPN’s indicator plants this way, will you please tell the rest of us at YourGardenShow.com?
Nursery folk have overlooked the chokecherry, at least judging by the scarcity of unusual cultivars. The best-known is ‘Schubert,’ which has glossy leaves that emerge green in spring and turn a purple-red when they reach full size in late spring. From a distance, it is a tree of strong color, which makes it useful as an accent in the landscape and for a grove or a screen on large properties. Another, ‘Canada Red,’ has deep purple-red leaves. There are a few others, but I have found no sources for them (yet).
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