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Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society

Focusing on native plants and conservation in North Idaho

Prunus virginiana 


  Species paper by Lois Wythe 

  • Rose family  

  • Most widespread tree/shrub in U.S.

  • Zones 2 to 8

  • Deciduous

  • Height 10 to 25 feet

  • Prefers full sun

  • Water requirements moderate to high

  • Native to North America and to this area

  • Habitat – moist woods, thickets, riverbanks

  • Flowers are white in long racemes.  Fruit is shiny red to dark purple.  Edible but sour and astringent.

  • Idaho champion: 1972, in Bingham County – 8 foot crown, 46” circumference, 39 feet tall !

Chokecherry is a large, straggly shrub or small tree, usually well under 20 feet tall in this area.  It has smooth, reddish brown bark on the young branches and blackish and rugged bark on the mature trees.

The wood is used in furniture making.  The Indians used the wood for handles and the shredded bark for decorating basket rims.  It was probably the Indians who showed the colonists the medicinal benefits of chokecherry and how they made a bark tea for diarrhea and lung ailments and, since it helped to cause sweating, used to bring down fevers.  It was also an ingredient in various tonics and extracts were applied directly to abscesses and ulcers.

We probably know Chokecherry best as an ingredient in cough medicine, and wild cherry cough drops and wild cherry syrup are still wintertime best sellers everywhere.....this, despite the fact that pharmacologists say it is only slightly effective.  While it may not stop coughs, it is certainly very soothing to a raw throat and for this writer, it is the cough medicine of choice.

The raw fruits are VERY sour (hence its common name) and the leaves and pits are poisonous as they contain hydrocyanic acid which causes loss of balance and convulsions.  The fruit is very popular for jams and jellies and is used in making a dry wine.  For medicinal purposes the young, thin bark is best.  Collect in autumn, clean off any dead tissue, dry, and store in dark glass containers.  Medicinal herbalists say that the tincture is excellent for diarrhea in children especially – 15 drops in a glass of water.

Chokecherries are a favorite food of raccoons and many other animals.

The tiger swallowtail and admiral butterflies use chokecherries for their chrysalis phases, which are usually green or brown and mimic pieces of leaf or wood.