Choke Cherry
Prunus virginiana L.
Family: Rosaceae, Rose
Genus: Prunus
Synonyms:
Other names: western chokecherry
Nomenclature: virginiana = of Virginia
Nativity / Invasiveness: Montana native plant
Edible plant
Medicinal plant
Toxic plant
Description

General: erect to straggling shrub or small tree 1-4 m. tall, the bark purplish-gray, with small, raised, horizontal pores.

Leaves: alternate, the stalks 5-15 mm long, with 1-2 purplish-red glands near the blade base. Leaf blades elliptic to ovate-oblong or oblong-obovate, finely sharp-toothed, 4-10 cm long, usually abruptly pointed at tips, bright green and hairless on the upper surface, paler and hairless to short-hairy beneath.

Flowers: numerous in terminal, congested, elongated clusters, the stalks of rather uniform length, mostly 4-8 mm long. Calyx hairless, the lobes spreading to curved back, oval, finely glandular-roughened, 1-1.5 mm long. Petals almost round, 4-6 mm long. Stamens about 25. May-early July.

Fruits: drupes (cherries), red to purple or black, shiny, ovoid, 8-11 mm long, sweet but astringent, in hanging clusters.


Distribution

Grassland and sagebrush areas, often along watercourses, upward in the lower mountains to ponderosa pine forest, in most parts of MT. Also from B.C., eastward in Canada to Newf., in the U.S. to CA, NM, SD, ND, KS, MO, TN, NC.
Edible Uses

The fruit of choke cherry is edible, raw or cooked. Very harsh, it is normally used in pies, jellies etc. Dark and juicy, it is sometimes edible raw when fully mature. The fruit can be dried and is then quite nice raw. The fruit is up to 8mm in diameter and contains a single large seed. The seed is edible, raw or cooked. Very nutritious, they are added to pemmican. The seed should however not be eaten if it is too bitter - see the notes below on toxicity. The bark and twigs can be used as a tea substitute.



Medicinal Uses

Chokecherry was widely employed medicinally by many native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a variety of complaints, valuing it especially for its astringency and beneficial effect upon the respiratory system. It is little, if at all, used in modern herbalism. The roots and the bark are a blood tonic, astringent, sedative, tonic and appetite stimulant, and has agents that relieve disorders of the chest and lungs, as an expectorant. An tea has been used in the treatment of fevers, coughs and colds. An infusion of the root bark has been used as a wash for burns, old sores and ulcers. The inner bark is used externally in the treatment of wounds. A decoction of the inner bark has been used as a treatment for laryngitis and stomach aches. The bark is sometimes used as a flavoring agent in cough syrups. The dried and powdered fruits are used to stimulate the appetite, treat diarrhea and bloody discharges of the bowels. The astringent unripened fruit has been used by children as a treatment for diarrhea. The fruit juice has been used as a treatment for sore throats.
Although no specific mention has been seen for this species, all members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid). In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being.



Toxic Properties

The seed can contain high concentrations of hydrogen cyanide, a poison that gives almonds their characteristic flavor. This toxin is readily detected by its bitter taste. Usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm, any very bitter seed or fruit should not be eaten. In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.



Other Uses

The plant forms thickets by means of suckers from its extensive root system and can be planted for erosion control. It is a pioneer species of abandoned fields and cut-over lands. A green dye can be obtained from the leaves. A green dye is obtained from the inner bark in spring. A dark gray to green dye and a purplish-red dye can be obtained from the fruit. The wood is close grained, moderately strong, hard, heavy, and does not burn easily. The wood weighs about 36lb per cubic foot. It is not valuable because of its small size and irregular shape, but has been used for skewers etc.



Sub taxa:

var. melanocarpa (A. Nels.) Sarg.:
Plants small to medium-sized shrubs, rarely over 4 (6) m. tall. Leaves rather thick in texture. Drupes deep bluish-purple to nearly black.

var. virginiana L.:
Plants large shrubs or small trees up to 15 m. tall. Leaves thin. Fruit crimson to deep red.

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