|Prunus virginiana var. virginiana (eastern chokecherry) in bloom|
|Subgenus:||Prunus subg. Padus|
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 Canada (including Northwest Territories, but excluding Yukon, Nunavut, and Labrador), most of the United States (including Alaska, but excluding some states in the Southeast), and northern Mexico (Sonora, Chihuahua, Baja California, Durango, Zacatecas, Coahuila, and Nuevo León).[additional citation(s) needed]
Chokecherry is a suckering shrub or small tree growing to 1–6 m (3 ft 3 in–19 ft 8 in) tall, rarely to 10 m (32 ft 10 in). The leaves are oval, 2.5–9.0 cm (1.0–3.5 in) long and 1.2–5 cm (0.5–2.0 in) wide, with a serrated margin.
The fruits (drupes) are about 6–14 mm (0.24–0.55 in) in diameter, range in color from bright red to black, and possess a very astringent taste, being both somewhat sour and somewhat bitter. They get darker and marginally sweeter as they ripen.
- Prunus virginiana var. virginiana (eastern chokecherry)
- Prunus virginiana var. demissa (Nutt. ex Torr. & A.Gray) Torr. (western chokecherry)
- Prunus virginiana var. melanocarpa (A.Nelson) Sarg.
The wild chokecherry is often considered a pest, as it is a host for the tent caterpillar, a threat to other fruit plants. Other, more appreciated cultivars of the chokecherry are known. 'Canada Red' and 'Schubert' have leaves that mature to purple and turn orange and red in the autumn. 'Goertz' has a nonastringent, so palatable, fruit. Research at the University of Saskatchewan seeks to find or 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 ft 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 is also used for the related Manchurian cherry or Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii).
For many Native American tribes of the Northern Rockies, Northern Plains, and boreal forest region of Canada and the United States, chokecherries are the most important fruit in their traditional diets and are part of pemmican, a staple traditional food. The bark of chokecherry root is 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, is also used by some tribes in ceremonial smoking mixtures, known as kinnikinnick. The chokecherry fruit can be eaten when fully ripe, but otherwise contains a toxin. The fruit can be used to make jam or syrup, but the bitter nature of the fruit requires sugar to sweeten the preserves. The Plains Indians pound up the whole fruits—including the toxic pits—in a mortar, from which they made sun-baked cakes.
The stone of the fruit is poisonous. Chokecherry is toxic to horses, 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 lb 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.
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.
It is a larval host to the black-waved flannel moth, the blinded sphinx, the cecropia moth, the coral hairstreak, the cynthia moth, the elm sphinx, Glover's silkmoth, the hummingbird clearwing moth, the imperial moth, the Io moth, the polyphemus moth, the promethea moth, the red-spotted purple, the small-eyed sphinx, the spring azure, the striped hairstreak, the tiger swallowtail, the twin-spotted sphinx, and Weidemeyer's admiral.
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