Common Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)


Rose Family (Rosaceae)

Other Names:

chokecherry, common choke cherry.

Origin and Distribution:

Chokecherry is native to North America and distributed throughout the central and northern U.S. It grows as a large shrub or small tree, and is scattered throughout Ohio along streams, river banks, wood edges, and in open woods. The species is often found growing along fencerows and roadsides as a result of dispersal by birds or mammals. Chokecherry tends to grow in dense colonies that often include other trees and shrubs. It prefers rich, moist soil and open locations, but will grow in stony or sandy soil that is well-drained.

Plant Description:

Chokecherry is a woody perennial that is more shrub-like than tree-like in its growth form. A distinctive characteristic is its gray bark, young twigs and leaves and inner layers produces a bitter almond smell when crushed. Also, it has small white flowers that grow in elongated, drooping clusters and produce dark red cherries. Reproduction is by spreading underground stems (rhizomes), sprouts from base of the trunk and seeds.

  • Root System:

    Chokecherry forms an extensive system of roots and rhizomes (horizontal underground stems).

  • Seedlings and Shoots:

    Seedlings sprout in clusters either from seeds or roots of established plants. Young plants have smooth bark, which may bear fine horizontal cracks. Bark becomes scaly as plants grow older and has been said to resemble "burned potato chips".

  • Stems:

    Mature chokecherries are about 25 to 30 feet tall and 2 to 6 inches in diameter. Trunk and twigs are covered by gray bark.

  • Leaves:

    Leaves are alternate (one per node), lance- to egg-shaped, and pointed at the tip. Leaf edges are covered with fine, sharp teeth which point outward away from the leaf. Leaves are typically 2 to 5 inches long and 1 and 2 inches wide. They are hairless on both sides.

  • Flowers:

    Chokecherry flowers are white, less than 1/2 inch wide, and grow in elongated, drooping clusters that are about 2 to 6 inches long.

  • Fruits and Seeds:

    Each flower produces a single-seeded red cherry that turns dark red-purple when ripe.

Similar Species:

Chokecherry is similar to two other cherry species, black cherry (Prunus serotina) and pin cherry (Prunus pensylvancia). Black cherry trees range from 60 to 80 feet tall and 2 to 5 feet in diameter, which is considerably larger than chokecherry. Black cherry leaves are slender, oval, have incurved teeth around the margins, and veins on their under side are covered by white or brown hairs. Fruits of black cherries are dark purple to nearly black (hence the name black cherry). The bark of pin cherry is reddish brown compared with the gray bark characteristic of chokecherry. Flower groups grow in the shape of umbrellas, which in no way resemble the cylindrical clusters of chokecherry. Also, pin cherry fruit is bright red.


Chokecherry blooms between April and June. Fruit appears between July and October. Colonies establish from sprouts originating from root crowns and rhizomes. Birds and mammals frequently disseminate seeds resulting in a wider distribution of chokecherry compared with that of many native North American trees.


Most parts of chokecherry are toxic to humans and livestock. Digestion of chokecherry seeds, leaves, twigs and bark by enzymes in the stomach releases cyanide (also called hydrocyanic or prussic acid). Cyanide poisoning can occur with fresh, bruised, wilted or dried foliage. It is possible for a person or animal to die of cyanide poisoning if not treated within minutes of ingestion. Cases of poisoning in livestock have been reported. However, it is not usual for such poisonings to occur at times when other, more palatable forage is available. Cases of poisoning have been reported for children who chewed on twigs, or ate the cherries without discarding the pits. The fleshy portion of the chokecherry fruit is not poisonous and can be safely eaten, although it is extremely tart.

Facts and Folklore:

  • Chokecherry twigs and bark smell like bitter almonds when crushed. This is a characteristic odor when cyanide is present.

  • The fruit of this species is known to be somewhat tart. However, it is frequently combined with other types of fruit to make pies and jellies.