Common names such as “chokecherry” often provide a link between culture and horticulture. Few people would eat chokecherry out of hand, fresh off the bush. It’s simply too astringent. Yet once processed into jam, jelly, syrup or wine (or made into ice cream!), it is excellent and hard to beat.
Both the western chokecherry (P. virginiana var. melanocarpa) and the eastern chokecherry (P. virginiana var. virginiana) are found here. The species name, virginiana, refers to part of its native range, the state of Virginia; melanocarpa means black fruited. Both species have purple to black fruit but the eastern chokecherry also has variants with yellow to red fruit.
Found in bluffs, ravines, sand hills and open woodland, chokecherries are large, upright, suckering shrubs with smooth, slender reddish-brown branches. Less often, they are small upright trees. Their form is generally rounded and irregular and from 6 to 30 feet tall. They grow rapidly, begin to fruit about three years after planting and live for about 40 years. There are several purple-leafed forms whose leaves emerge green and turn dark purple by early summer (e.g. ‘Schubert’).
The tendency of many chokecherries to sucker may be a problem when planted on a smaller property. They are recommended for informal shrub borders, wildlife plantings and shelterbelts, providing food and cover for birds. The white flowers are fragrant, about 3/8 inch across and held in loose racemes 3 to 6 inches long.
Chokecherry fruit (about 1/3 of an inch in diameter) develop in loose racemes. They are flavourful but astringent and contain a single seed (also called a pit or stone). Chokecherries are easy to harvest because each raceme generally holds 15 to 20 cherries that range in size from 4 to 12 mm in diameter. 75% is fleshy pulp and juice and 25% is the seed or pit.
They are usually harvested in the last half of August. Once fully ripe, the fruit becomes sweeter and more palatable. Freezing also reduces the astringency. Unripe fruit contains more pectin. To ensure that your jelly sets, use 1/4 to 1/3 under-ripe fruit – cherries that are more red than dark purple-black.
Although most plant parts contain cyanogenic glycoside prunasin (cyanide), which is converted to hydrocyanic (prussic) acid in the stomach, the meaty flesh of the fruit is not toxic. Chokecherries are dangerous only if large quantities of the fresh fruit are eaten without first removing the pits or when they have not been processed properly. Boiling (as is done with most processing) neutralizes these toxins. Steam extraction of juice can also be safely used.
Chokecherries are also high in healthy antioxidant pigments (anthocyanins) that give the fruit its characteristic purple and red colour and leave stains of the same colour on your clothes and counters. Colour is important. When making jam, jelly or syrup, keep in mind that the black-fruited varieties make a luxurious burgundy-coloured syrup. Red, orange and yellow-fruited varieties make a less vibrantly coloured (sometimes brown) syrup. On the positive side, trees with the lighter-coloured fruit look spectacular in the landscape.
Chokecherries are easy to find in the wild and along riverbanks, or you may wish to plant one. Among the named varieties are:
Bailey’s Select Schubert, Boughen Sweet, Boughen’s Golden, Canada Red, Garrington, Goertz, Lee Red, Maxi, Midnight Schubert, Mission Red, Pickup’s Pride, Robert and Schubert.
Black knot (Apiosporina morbosa), a fungal disease that overwinters in distinctive “knots” on infected Mayday and chokecherry trees, is a major problem, best dealt with by pruning off the galls. Disinfect your pruning tools with a 5% bleach solution or an alcohol-based disinfectant such as Lysol or 90% rubbing alcohol between cuts.
Sara is the author of numerous gardening books, among them the revised Creating the Prairie Xeriscape. And with Hugh Skinner: Gardening Naturally – A Chemical-free Handbook for the Prairies and Trees and Shrubs for the Prairies. Expect Fruit for Northern Gardens with Bob Bors in November, 2017.
This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; http://www.saskperennial.ca; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.facebook.com/saskperennial). Check out our Bulletin Board or Calendar for upcoming garden information sessions, workshops, tours and other events: Plant & Seed Exchange and Bulb sale, September 10, 1-4pm Forestry Farm Park and Zoo. Members Only but memberships (a mere $10) available at the door.