Chokecherry

(Prunus virginiana)

Chokecherry
Dormant Garrington chokecherry

Not to be confused with Chokeberry (Aronia supp).

Cultivar tested:

‘Garrington’

Description and site preference

Type and size – suckering shrub or small tree, usually less than 16 feet
Hardiness zone – 2-7
Exposure – full sun to be fruitful
Soil – widely adapted, pH 5.0-8.0
Drainage – all but very poorly drained

Economic factors

Years to harvest – 2-3
Maintenance – low input, mow to control suckering
Life of planting – continuous
Machine harvest potential – intermediate (specialized)
Suitable markets – processed (value-added)

Notable features

Nutritional highlights – high in anthocyanins, an antioxidant need reference (See Wikipedia reference, below)
Adaptability – pioneering plant, very versatile
Pest issues – minimal
Invasive potential – native, can be a nuisance but easy to control
Environmental benefits – late spring bloom maintains pollinator habitat

Integration characteristics

Shared management – high with other bushes and shrubs
Shared equipment – intermediate (may need specialized mechanical harvester)
Shared processing – intermediate (special pitting equipment needed)
Co-marketing – high, compatible with other similarly processed fruit crops

Integration potential – very promising

Chokecherry could provide ecological benefits in an integrated system as an insectary plant. New and improved selections, along with more information on its nutritional value, could make it an economically sustainable component.

History and background

Much like kiwi (originally called Chinese gooseberry), this nutritious fruit could benefit from a more positive sounding name change. The food value of this widespread native cherry was not lost on Native Americans. Remnants found at archeological sites in the Dakotas show it was used extensively for a long time. European settlers adapted the use of chokecherries for jam, jelly, wine and syrup. (Grower’s note: As a child in southwestern Wisconsin, I would harvest the fruit, along with that of elderberry, blackberry and black raspberry. My mother would make wonderful jams, jellies and syrup from chokecherries. This was enjoyed immensely on pancakes, our traditional breakfast after morning chores.) Chokecherries are high in antioxidant pigments (anthocyanins), a characteristic they share with the unrelated chokeberry (Aronia).

Chokecherry is a suckering shrub or small tree. Fruit is borne on elongated clusters, called racemes, of 15 to 30 individual fruits similar to that of red currant. Individual fruit is small and contains a pit that accounts for up to half of the total fruit volume. Pits are removed by heating the fruit to soften the flesh and pressing it through a course sieve or colander. Fruit is astringent until very ripe. The flavor of fresh chokecherries varies widely: some are very astringent, most are somewhat astringent and some are not astringent and wonderful to eat right off the bush.

Until very recently, there has been little attempt to do any plant breeding or even select superior strains from among native populations, but this may be changing. There have been a few selections made in Canada, where a chokecherry industry is developing. There appears to be significant genetic variability in this species, which could improve uniformity, fruit size and even fresh fruit appeal through selective breeding programs.

Observations at Carandale Farm

In 2008, Carandale Farm ordered four plants of a selection called ‘Garrington’ from St. Lawrence Nurseries. The catalog description states: “Developed in Alberta, Canada, fruit size is 3/8 inches. Bushes are 6-8 feet tall at maturity and produce up to 30 lbs of fruit. Can be hand or machine picked (harvested).” Chokecherry needs cross pollination, so the growers also ordered four plants of a wild type.

  • All four plants grew and adapted well, as did the pollinator plants.
  • Within a year it became obvious that the pollinator plants had been mislabeled and were in fact chokeberry (Aronia).
  • Pollinator plants were reordered and replaced free of charge in 2010.
  • In 2011, the ‘Garrington’ plants produced a few fruit despite the lack of a suitable cross pollinator. Birds harvested the fruit before growers could evaluate them.
  • By 2011 it was obvious that the replacement pollinator plants that were sent in 2010 were again Aronia, not chokecherry. As of 2013, Carandale has not had a chance to find replacements.
  • There was virtually no fruit in 2012. This was expected with the lack of suitable pollinators and the general freeze-out that affected many of the perennial fruiting species.
  • Plants have grown slowly but appear to be healthy.

Discussion

Chokecherry is another fruiting shrub that is not uncommon in the environment, but has received very little attention as a fruit crop in modern times. It is not a prototype plant for a mono-cultural system and a globalized market, but it has potential in an integrated cropping system and an emerging local/regional marketing alternative. Chokecherry could be a companion crop to attract pollinators and beneficial insects as well as contribute to diversity that discourages pest build-up.

Not only could it be an ecologically important component, but chokecherry could also contribute to economic sustainability. It can be managed, harvested and processed similarly to numerous other fruits to mimic economies of scale attributed to less sustainable mono-cultural systems. As breeding programs progress and more information about the nutritional value of chokecherry becomes available, interest and marketing opportunities could bring it back to its historical prominence.

References

Wikipedia entry on Chokecherry
Edible Wild Foods information on Chokecherry
Nutrition-and-you, search Chokecherry

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