Prunus virginiana
Rose family (Rosaceae)

Description: This is a deciduous shrub or small tree that becomes 8-25' tall at maturity. It has a short trunk about 2-6" across, while its crown is irregular with ascending to widely spreading branches. On older trees, trunk bark is gray or grayish brown and somewhat scaly or wrinkled, otherwise it is more brown and smooth with prominent lenticels (lateral air pores). The branches and twigs are brown to reddish brown and smooth with prominent lenticels. Young shoots are light green, reddish green, or brownish green, glabrous, and terete. Alternate leaves occur along twigs and young shoots. These leaves are 2-4" long and –2" across; they are ovate to ovate-obovate in shape, while their margins are serrated. The leaves taper somewhat abruptly into long slender tips, while their bases are more or less rounded. The upper leaf surface is medium to dark green and glabrous, while the lower leaf surface is light green and glabrous (or nearly so). Sometimes, a few hairs are found along the central and lateral veins of the leaf undersides. The slender petioles are –1" long, light green to reddish green, and glabrous. Solitary pairs of minute glands often occur near the tips of petioles where they join the leaf blades. The crushed foliage of this woody plant has a strong bitter-almond scent.

Cylindrical racemes of 10-25 flowers develop at the tips of branches or from short lateral shoots; these racemes are 3–6" long and about 1" in diameter. Each flower is about " across when it is fully open, consisting of 5 spreading white petals, 5 sepals, 15-20 stamens, and a pistil with a single style. The petals are oval to orbicular in shape and clawed (abruptly narrowed) at their bases; the face of each petal is somewhat concave. The sepals are oval in shape, glabrous, partially overlapping, and shorter than the petals. The sepals are initially light green, but they later become yellow; this causes the centers of the flowers to appear yellow. The stamens are about as long as the petals, making them conspicuous. The pedicels of the flowers and the central stalks of racemes are light green and glabrous. The flowers bloom during mid- to late spring, lasting about 1-2 weeks; they have an almond-sweet fragrance. Afterwards, the flowers are replaced by drupes that become mature during the summer. Mature drupes are about 6-10 mm. across, bright red or dark red (in Illinois), and globoid in shape (see Photo). Each drupe contains a a single small stone (seed with a hard coat) that is surrounded by juicy flesh; the flavor of this flesh is bitter and sour. The woody root system is shallow and spreading; sometimes clonal plants are produced from underground runners that can extend several feet. By this means, thickets of clonal plants sometimes form.

The preference is full sun to light shade and moist to dry-mesic conditions. Many kinds of soil are tolerated, including those that contain sand, silt, loam, glacial till, clay, or rocky material. This woody plant also tolerates soil with varying pH (from acidic to alkaline). Chokecherry develops quickly and it may spread into adjacent areas where it isn't wanted.

Range & Habitat: The native Chokecherry occurs occasionally in the northern half of Illinois, while in the southern half of the state it is rare or absent (see Distribution Map). Habitats include typical woodlands and sandy woodlands, typical savannas and sandy savannas, open disturbed woodlands, woodland openings, woodland borders, wooded ravines, slopes of bluffs, stabilized sand dunes near Lake Michigan, typical thickets and sandy thickets, powerline clearances in wooded areas, fence rows, and abandoned fields. Chokecherry is a pioneer species that colonizes disturbed areas where some of the woody vegetation has been damaged, killed, or removed. While Chokecherry is easily top-killed by fire, it is able to resprout from its root system with little difficulty.

Faunal Associations:
The flowers are cross-pollinated primarily by bees, including honeybees, bumblebees, Andrenid bees, and Halictid bees (including green metallic bees). Syrphid flies and other flies are also common visitors of the flowers. Both nectar and pollen are available as floral rewards for these visitors. Like other Prunus spp. (Plums, Cherries), Chokecherry is a host plant of many insects that feed destructively on its foliage, wood, sap, flowers, and fruit. These insect feeders include the larvae of Agrilus vittaticollis (Hawthorn Root Borer), larvae of Scolytus rugulosus (Shothole Borer), the flea beetle Crepidodera violacea, the leaf beetle Eusattodera thoracica, fruit-eating larvae of Contarinia virginianiae (Chokecherry Midge), larvae of the gall fly Contarinia racemi, the aphid Asiphonaphis pruni, Myzus cerasi (Black Cherry Aphid), Rhopalosiphum padi (Bird Cherry & Oat Aphid), Rhopalosiphum cerasifoliae (Chokecherry Aphid), and the leafhopper Erythridula aspera (Marshall, 2006; Clark et al., 2004; Felt, 1917; Blackman & Eastop, 2013; Robinson & Bradley, 1965; Dmitriev & Dietrich, 2010).

The caterpillars of two butterflies, Limenitis arthemis astyanax (Red-spotted Purple) and Satyrium titus (Coral Hairstreak), feed on Chokecherry, as do the caterpillars of such moths as Acronicta hasta (Speared Dagger Moth), Argyresthia oreasella (Cherry Shoot Borer), Catocala ultronia (Ultronia Underwing), Eucirroedia pampina (Scalloped Sallow), Metarranthis angularia (Angled Metarranthis), Metarranthis hypochraria (Common Metarranthis), Orthosia garmani (Garman's Quaker), Archips cerasivorana (Ugly Nest Caterpillar), and Malacosoma americanum (Eastern Tent Caterpillar); see Opler & Krizek (1984) and Covell (1984/2005). Chokecherry and other cherry species are also important sources of food to many vertebrate animals, including birds and mammals. The fruit is consumed by many upland gamebirds, songbirds, and woodpeckers (see Bird Table). Examples of such birds include the Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Bobwhite Quail, Cardinal, Blue Jay, Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Red-headed Woodpecker.

Such mammals as the Black Bear, Gray Fox, Raccoon, Opossum, Striped Skunk, Fox Squirrel, Gray Squirrel, Red Squirrel, and Eastern Chipmunk also eat the fruit (Martin et al., 1951/1961). The seeds of these fruits are eaten by the Eastern Chipmunk, White-footed Mouse, Meadow Jumping Mouse, and Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel (Webb & Willson, 1985). The twigs and foliage of Chokecherry and other cherry trees are eaten by the White-tailed Deer, while the bark of saplings are gnawed by the Cottontail Rabbit during the winter. Occasionally, cattle and sheep are poisoned by browsing on the foliage of Chokecherry. This is because a chemical compound converts into toxic hydrocyanic acid when the foliage is damaged or wilted. However, the toxicity of Chokecherry's foliage declines as it becomes older later in the year.

Photographic Location: A woodland at Judge Webber Park in Urbana, Illinois, and a woodland at the Toledo Botanical Garden in Toledo, Ohio.

Chokecherry has a wide distribution across the northern half of the United States and southern Canada. It is similar to another native species, Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), in producing showy racemes of flowers, although the racemes of Chokecherry are slightly shorter in length. While Wild Black Cherry can become a full-sized tree, Chokecherry is a shrub or small tree. These two species can be distinguished by their leaves: the leaves of Wild Black Cherry have a more slender shape and their teeth are incurved, while the leaves of Chokecherry are more broad and their teeth are straight. The native Chokecherry is very similar in appearance to an introduced Eurasian species that is occasionally cultivated, Bird Cherry (Prunus padus). The latter species differs by having shorter stamens on its flowers and it tends to have a more tree-like habit of growth. Like Chokecherry and Wild Black Cherry, Bird Cherry produces its flowers in racemes, rather than in umbel-like clusters. So far, Bird Cherry has rarely naturalized in the wild in Illinois.