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General: Rose Family (Rosaceae). Chokecherry is a native, perennial, deciduous, woody, thicket-forming large erect shrub or small tree. It rarely reaches a height of over 30 feet. The crown is irregular and from 10 to 20 feet wide when mature. The stems are numerous and slender. Reproduction can either be by seed or root rhizomes.
Leaves are dark green and glossy above and paler beneath. They are alternate, simple, glabrous, oval to broadly elliptic in shape, 1 to 4 inches long, and 3/4 to 2 inches wide. The margins are toothed with closely-spaced sharp teeth pointing outward forming a serrated edge. They turn yellow in autumn.
The bark of young trees may vary from gray to a reddish brown. As it ages the bark turns darker, into brownish-black and becomes noticeably furrowed. The bark is distinctly marked by horizontal rows of raised air pores (lenticels). With maturation the lenticels develop into shallow grooves.
It has perfect flowers which are aromatic and arranged in cylindrical racemes 3 to 6 inches long. The racemes always grow on the current year's leafy twig growth. Individual flowers are perfect, 1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter with 5 white petals. The flowers start appearing before the leaves are fully developed. Flowers may appear from April to July and fruits form a couple of months later.
The fruits are spherical drupes (fleshy fruit with a stone in the center), globose, 1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter. Small ripe cherries range in color from dark red or purple to almost black. There are from 3,000 to 5,000 seeds per pound.
The roots are a network of rhizomes. Deep root systems grow at irregular intervals along the length of the rhizomes. Rhizomes can extend beyond the drip zone, up to 35 feet away from the base of the tree. Rhizomes grow up to 3/4 inch in diameter.
There are three recognized varieties of Prunus virginiana. The variety demissa is commonly called western chokecherry. It produces dark red fruit. The variety melanocarpa produces black fruit. The variety virginiana produces crimson to deep red fruit. This variety can be found in two forms, one with red and one with white fruit.
Habitat: Chokecherry is found in a large geographic area and it grows abundantly in many habitat types and plant associations. It may be found in thin stands, as dense thickets or individually in open forest clearings. It prefers direct sunlight and is not an understory species of boreal forests.
Chokecherry occurs naturally in a wide range of soil types and textures. Soils supporting chokecherry vary considerably, from abandoned construction sites, with almost no soil depth or fertility, to deep virgin grasslands, with deep profiles and a high level of nutrients. Soil textures range from silt to sandy loam, it does not do well on heavy clay soils. Soil pH can vary from 5.2 (mildly acid) to 8.4 (moderately alkaline) without any adverse effect upon growth. Precipitation ranges from 13 to 65 inches annually. Sites range from low to mostly mid-elevation, although it also occurs from 8,000 to 10,000 feet in Idaho, Nevada and Utah. It is widely adaptable to temperature extremes. It is found in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 7 naturally. If planted, chokecherry will grow into zone 10. The four major limiting factors in its habitat are that it is intolerant of shade, poor drainage, frequent flooding and soils with a large amount of clay.
Many wildlife animals eat the fruit and distribute it. Birds are by far the most common carrier of the seeds. As a consequence it grows abundantly on places where birds rest, like along roadsides, fences, hedgerows, riparian margins and forest clearings.
Chokecherry is well adapted to fire disturbance. It can be top-killed by fire, but re-sprouts readily from root crowns and rhizomes. Seed germination is apparently improved with heat treatment, suggesting a further adaptation to fire.