The chokecherry tree: White flowers, bitter fruit

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  • Photo by DON BARTLING On the Kootenai River the spring flowers from Chokecherry Trees provide birds cover and nesting habitat as well as sources of nectar for butterflies, honey bees and ants.

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    Photo by DON BARTLING One of the most attractive features of the Chokecherry Tree is the mass of dense flower clusters at the end of their branches. These flowers usually bloom in late May.

  • Photo by DON BARTLING On the Kootenai River the spring flowers from Chokecherry Trees provide birds cover and nesting habitat as well as sources of nectar for butterflies, honey bees and ants.

  • 1

    Photo by DON BARTLING One of the most attractive features of the Chokecherry Tree is the mass of dense flower clusters at the end of their branches. These flowers usually bloom in late May.

“Someone is setting in the shade today because someone planted a tree along the way”

Last week as I drove along the Kootenai River on Riverside Road west of Bonners Ferry to the Deep Creek Bridge, I noticed many white blossoms on certain robust green trees. As I was passing them standing in line on the river bank, it appeared like they were all dressed up for spring. It was as if they were placing their best foot forward, showing off their green leaves and white blossoms and fighting for attention, one tree at a time.

I have always liked trees, but these trees with the white blossoms made me curious. Upon further inspection of the trees and the help of Angela Tucker with the University of Idaho Extension office, they were identified as chokecherry trees.

Chokecherries get their name from the claim the fruit “makes you choke” when eaten, particularly out of season. The chokecherry tree is a member of the rose family, but it may not be as famous as some of the other rose family members such as the plum, peach, apple and almond trees.

The chokecherry, Prunus virigianiana, grows as a medium to tall shrub generally, but if grown in unfavorable conditions, it tends to be more shrub-like and in prime conditions, it grows like a tree up to 12 feet. Prime conditions include a sunny location and moist, rich soil. It is not especially choosy about the soil in which it grows, but it does not do as well in poor, shallow or deep, sandy soil. The tree is relatively intolerant of shade. Native to Canada, the chokecherry tree is a widely planted species that has been cultivated since 1724.

One of the most attractive features of the Chokecherry Tree is the mass of dense flowers clusters at the end of the branches. These flowers normally bloom during the latter part of May. In the fall, from August to September, the chokecherries have ripened and are ready to be harvested. The berries are typically a very dark red with a rounded shape. It is hard to believe that people have found ways to make even the bitter taste of the chokecherry edible, but many enjoy chokecherry jellies, wines and syrups. The chokecherry was once a staple for the early settlers and Native Americans who used it to make pemmican and also stored it frozen or partly dried to be eaten throughout the winter. The fruit of chokecherries and other cherry species is commonly used for making jams, pies and sauces.

The chokecherry is important to many forms of wildlife in Boundary County. Birds, rabbits, rodents and bears all seek out and eat its fruit. It provides food, cover and nesting habitat for a variety of birds. Birds will also take advantage of its growth form for cover and nesting habitat. It is used by deer as a browse source in the winter. The early spring flowers provide an important source of nectar for butterflies, honeybees and ants.

I am going to revisit the area where the chokecherry trees are blooming and look forward to tasting their fruit in August when the chokecherries are ripe. Also, I am going to remind myself why they named the fruity berry the chokecherry!

Enjoy Boundary County and its amazing plants.

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