Most everyone from the Upper Midwest has grabbed a handful of ripe chokecherries when they were a kid or adult. They looked so delectable with their deep burgundy to black coloring that we felt forced to eat them. Once we popped them in our mouth, we puckered up due to their tart and astringent flavor. If you have not done that, you will probably find yourself doing that in the next week or two to find out what I am talking about.
The chokecherry is native to the Dakotas, Utah, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Being extremely hardy, it can withstand Zone 2 temperatures of up to minus 50. Growing anywhere from 10 to 20 feet in height, it can become 10 to 12 feet wide also to create a small tree or large shrub.
Chokecherry bushes are typically used in the landscapes for windbreak purposes as their suckering habit make them unsuitable for specimen plantings in the yard. Some varieties, such as the Schubert chokecherry or Canada Red chokecherry, are grown for their deep purple leaf color after the foliage has matured in a tree form. They sucker less, but will still sucker with age to a moderate extent. Typically these can be mowed off to keep them from obtaining any size outside of the main tree. Able to grow in most any soil, they prefer a full sun-lit location to produce the best crop of fruit. If they are grown in the shade, the bush itself will still grow well, but the berries will not form.
During the spring months, this will be one of the earliest bushes to leaf out, followed by a fairly rapid growth before coming to a halt. During the growth period, the new growth will produce many racemes of flowerbuds that will open in mid- to-late May to provide a heavy and sweet aroma from the cream-colored flowers. In cool weather, these flowers can bloom from 10 to 14 days; in hotter weather their life is a bit shorter.
This heavy aroma attracts many insects and bees to pollinate each bloom. During June and July, these pollinated racemes develop the cluster of berries that will turn from red to black when mature by the end of July into the beginning of August. Once they are a full black color, they are at their sweetest, but do not be fooled by my definition of "sweet" as they will still make your mouth pucker!
Native Americans used many parts of this bush for various purposes. The bark of the chokecherry root itself was used to make a mixture that could assist or ward off colds, help reduce fevers and aid in lessening various stomach ailments. Their branches were used to make bows and arrows and their berries were used for many other things. The red color of the berries made the best jams, jellies and syrups, and is still used for those purposes today. They even used the juice as a natural dye for different types of fabrics, so don't spill any on your clothes if you are working with them in the kitchen, as it is tough to get out.
Wine making with chokecherries has also become quite popular. It is one of the few types I have not tried in the winemaking realm, only because I do not grow them in the yard. One day I am sure I will give it a try, as my grandmother use to make it and I remember you had to be careful drinking it as it was very potent!
The foliage is not used for much as it can be quite toxic to many different types of animals, especially horses and sheep. Late in the season when the leaves begin to wilt, they produce cyanide in the leaves that can taste sweet to animals, but can prove very problematic, if not fatal. Their branches are very nutritious to most animals during the winter months as a source for energy.
Chokecherry bushes come with a few character flaws outside of their sucking habit. They are susceptible to black-knot canker, Valsa canker and stem decay. They are also a host for the Prairie Tent caterpillar, which net the branches together with a web sheath around them, forming a large net. Within this net of webs are hundreds of caterpillars that will eat the foliage and reproduce to spread to other fruiting trees. I have found the best way to eliminate this pest is to cut the branches with the 'tent' out and burn the entire contents.
If you are looking to utilize these great berries, grab some large pails and find a yard or farm where the residents will allow you to harvest them. It takes quite a few to make any of the products mentioned, and of course there is some work and time involved. However, when you are finished, you will enjoy a variety of different items that you can use for quite some time in the coming year.
If you prefer not to do all the work of processing the chokecherries, I would at least challenge you to grab a handful (if you have not before) to munch on and taste the tart flavor that causes one incredible pucker.