As the days grow shorter, the western chokecherry (Prunus virginina) puts on a beautiful display of yellow and orange fall foliage and grapelike clusters of dark purple or black fruit.
This native shrub or small tree is found throughout most of North America except for a few southeastern states. Chokecherries can be found in a variety of habitats and soil types, but thrive in moist, sunny spots.
The deciduous leaves are oval to oblong and serrated along the margins. The fleshy fruit is tart and astringent – a “puckery” taste – with a large stone or pit. The acid taste explains the other common name, bitterberry. Occasionally I will pick a few berries and nibble on them, but usually they are too tart to enjoy raw. The berries do make good jam, jellies and wine though.
Native Americans used chokecherry wood for arrows, bows and pipe stems. The bark was employed in the treatment of diarrhea and the fruits were thought to reduce cold sores. Chokecherry fruits were also added to pemmican.
Hydrocyanic acid is present in chokecherry leaves, stems and seeds. For that reason care must be taken not to eat the chokecherry seeds since hydrocyanic acid, if eaten in sufficient quantities, can cause poisoning and even death. During times when forage is scarce, livestock forced to eat chokecherry plants can be poisoned. Fatal poisoning requires that about 0.25% of the body weight in chokecherry plant material must be eaten within about an hour. Consumption of lesser amounts can lead to blue mouth coloring, distress, rapid breathing, salivation and muscle twitch. Hydrocyanic acid concentrates after the fall frosts and it is then that most poisonings occur.
Although all classes of livestock can be fatally poisoned by consuming chokecherry plants, they remain an important wildlife food. Large mammals such as bear, deer, moose and elk browse chokecherries while birds and rodents eat the fruit. The chokecherry shrubs also provide habitat for birds and small animals. Although chokecherries are not a desirable trial food, these shrubs add beauty and color to the fall landscape.
These photographs were taken at Eastman Lake (Shasta County CA) and along the Little Truckee River in Nevada.