Prunus virginiana_Chokecherry_LAH_003If I could create one perfect plant for the Pikes Peak region, what would it be like?

Of course, I’d want it to be attractive. It should adorn itself with cheerful spring flowers, good-looking foliage, and intense fall color. I’d add persistent fruit or berries to feed the birds and provide winter interest.

My perfect plant should be easy to grow; I’d want it to thrive in our native soils with little or no supplemental water. It must be hardy to at least 8,000 feet, and still handle summer heat waves.

I’d create a versatile plant that could be trained as either a medium-to-large shrub or small tree. Deer resistance would be a bonus. And I’d want it to be readily available from local garden centers (at a reasonable price).

Well, it seems that Somebody beat me to it. There is a perfect plant for this area—the common Chokecherry.

Prunus virginiana_Chokecherry_LAH_00r7Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) are attractive year-round. Panicles of white flowers appear in spring, carpeting the ground with their dropped petals. Newly emerging leaves are reddish, turning green as the season progresses. All those blossoms turn into half-inch red “cherries” that attract thrushes, waxwings, and other berry-eating birds. If not eaten, the fruits persist into winter after the leaves have turned golden and fallen off.

They grow over most of the U.S. and Canada; they can be found everywhere except in the deep south and in the arctic. I even have some growing naturally under our ponderosa pines. They can be invasive in more benign climes, but here they’re well-behaved.

In spite of their wide distribution, chokecherries are perfectly suited to our soils and climate. Plants persist through wet years and dry years. It takes a severe hailstorm to do much damage to the sturdy leaves and small fruit. Cold doesn’t faze them—wild plants grow anywhere from 5,000 feet to 10,200 feet throughout the Rockies.

Prunus virginiana - Chokecherry @XG 2008july18 LAH 4505Depending on how they are pruned, chokecherries can be held to an eight-foot shrub or allowed to develop into a tree with either one or multiple trunks. They can reach 15 to 25 feet in height.

Chokecherries play an important role in nature, providing food, holding soil, and creating habitat. Many mammals munch on the leaves and twigs, as well as the berries. Deer, elk, bears, sheep, coyotes, and many smaller animals all dine on chokecherry foliage.

As they wilt (from drought or in autumn), the leaves begin to produce a form of cyanide and become toxic. (This can be a problem if you raise horses, cattle, or other livestock.)

Prunus virginiana - Chokecherry @home 2008oct20 LAH 033The berries remain edible. Many of our friends make delicious jelly from their juice, which is very high in antioxidants. I made the mistake of trying a berry right off the bush. I do not recommend doing this. They are extremely astringent and bitter. (Plant breeders are creating cultivars which are much more palatable to humans.)

Pests are few. Some subspecies are eaten by bagworms, which can be a problem. Other caterpillars may chew on the leaves, but that’s the price we pay for butterflies.

All in all, I consider chokecherries to be the perfect Colorado landscape plant. Are you growing one yet?
Article and photos by Leslie Holzmann, Certified Colorado Gardener.