So I thought I was doing a good thing when I planted a purple-leaved Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana ‘Schubert’) in the back garden, and another along the east side of the house. Chokecherry is a small North American tree with great wildlife value. I was looking forward to the flowers, the fruits (small and very sour, but popular with birds), and the butterfly larvae (Chokecherry is a larval host for many butterflies and moths).

Chokecherry ‘Schubert’ in the back garden.

Turns out this plant has been a disappointment. For starters, while both trees have put on a good deal of growth, there have been no flowers and no fruits. I don’t really understand it. Chokecherry is supposed to tolerate part shade and it is in a spot where other plants tolerant of partial or light shade bloom with little difficulty.

As for butterflies, I have seen little evidence of insect herbivory. Only after these trees were planted did I come across this research done by the Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware. The researchers, including Douglas Tallamy, were trying to determine to what extent caterpillars utilized cultivars of native species, also known as “nativars”.

They found that, in general, nativars did not discourage insect appetites – with one exception, which was nativars bred or selected for red or purple leaves.

Chokecherry ‘Schubert’ foliage near ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea flower.

Not that I am against nativars. We have plenty of straight species in the garden, but I am also happy to grow a number of horticulturally superior nativars. As noted earlier, the Mt. Cuba research notes that “many traits commonly selected for cultivation do not deter insect herbivory”. Other studies have found that some nativars are equal, or even superior, to straight species when it comes to attracting pollinators. It all depends on the specific variety. As a general rule, double flowers are not pollinator-friendly.

Ironically, I’m not especially fond of purple leaves, but ‘Schubert’ was the only Chokecherry I could find for sale at the time I was looking. More recently, I found that Prairie Nursery is selling a straight species Chokecherry. In the case of this plant, if I had a do-over, I would have planted the straight species.

Incidentally, I really like the word ‘herbivory”, and would like to work it into my everyday conversation. How about: the sweet-and-sour cabbage was the cause of much herbivory at dinner last night, much of it from myself.

Chokecherry stem infected with black knot.

Anyhow, to put the cherry on top, so to speak, I found black knot on one of the Chokecherries yesterday. It was just one stem, which I removed and destroyed, so not a big deal. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Prunus species (which includes cherries, peaches, plums, and some other stone fruits) are susceptible to quite a few diseases.

I guess I’d better learn to enjoy those purple leaves, because these trees seem unlikely to have much else to offer.

28 Comments on “Not A Bowl of Cherries”

  1. For what it’s worth, which isn’t much since it’s your yard, I think it looks lovely there in the shade! If it will bug you every time you look out and see it, take it out! I say plant your garden with what pleases your eye.

  2. Although I think the purple leaf next to the white hydrangea (not to mention the raspberry birdhouse) is wonderful garden drama, I think I’d pull both chokeberries and go for something I completely love. Now “herbivory” is a word to love! I too will try to work it in where I can — if I impress no one else, I’ll impress myself! Thank you!

  3. They are beautiful shrubs. I have a black niger elderberry. It doesn’t often have insects on it or make berries. It does usually bloom some but not spectacular. I often thought because it doesn’t get full sun. Hmmm?.
    Aren’t the studies on plants done by Mt Cuba interesting to read?!

  4. Well, the purple leaves are pretty amazing. We have the straight species in part shade and it flowers and berries as it should … but you are much colder there. Isn’t it fascinating — all the research about cultivars and whether the change affects …. ok, herbivory!

  5. I think the purple leaves are beautiful, but I was curious about how ‘chokecherry’ got its name. Sure enough: it’s from the sharp, astringent taste of the raw fruit that makes people choke. There’s a fascinating section on Native American food use of the plant here. If nothing else, you could cut a few branches to use as barbeque skewers. They’re said to spice up a hunk of meat.

  6. I’m happy to see “herbivory” introduced by you into popular parlance. The purple leaves of your chokecherry are pretty, but as noted in an earlier comment, if it is causing you frustration, off with its head!

  7. Flowering has biologists stumped. There’s so much we don’t know about how it happens. Is it in the wrong photo period? It should be OK if it is native, but does it have a long day or short day preference? Does it need to mature a few years? Or maybe needs precise phenology? 🤔 Either way, it’s cool to try new things and share your observations with others so we can learn.

  8. Although the Chokecherry is very pretty, I can understand your disappointment at not seeing flowers or berries, we too need plants that are larval host for butterflies and moths. While we have encouraged many bees to our garden over the years, I don’t see as many butterflies, or even moths, as when we first began our garden.

  9. Removing a tree, for a lot of us, can be traumatic. However, there are times when it is necessary and/or preferable. We have to make the decision. Perhaps you could remove one and replace it with something that does what you want. Something to herbivory over.

  10. Perhaps it just needs a year or so to mature? Though if you don’t really like it, why not give to a friend in an act of stupendous generosity and replace with something you get more enjoyment from? This is how I usually deal with underwhelming plants!

  11. How disappointing… if only you loved those purple leafs it wouldn’t be quite so sad.
    Is there room for a third Chockcherry that’s a straight specie? This post taught me two delicious words: “nativar” and “herbivory” and a lot of interesting information about pollinators and their preferences… fascinating stuff.

  12. It is always a disappointment when something doesn’t turn out as desired. I planted a dark-leafed Cotinus two years ago. The flowers are also supposed to attract insects but it hasn’t produced a single flower and from afar it just doesn’t fit into the landscape. I secretly hope it might die on me! 😉

  13. My yard is surrounded by hundreds of wild choke cherries, and I love them! The flowers scent the air in the spring. In the fall I make choke cherry syrup, and what I don’t pick, the birds harvest. I hope you give them another chance.

  14. That is really interesting about adverse reactions to the red or purple leaves. I had no idea! A similar aversion to double flowers sounds familiar, though. I guess that makes sense. A pollinator would have a lot more space to seek out nectar in an open, single flower than one full of a bunch of petals. Your use of ‘herbivory’ made me smile. Great word indeed!

  15. Hello Jason, I actually really like the purple colour of the leaves. It’s a shame it doesn’t produce cherries (that’s much like our fruit trees). It’s not a substitute, but growing a pale-coloured flowering clematis or rose up the tree would really make the flowers pop.

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