How to Grow Chokecherries

Chokecherry shrub branches with bright and dark red cherries hanging between rounded leaves

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

A double delight, this tree produces long, white flowers that turn into famous purple-black berries, known as chokecherries or bitter-berries. These bitter-tasting berries are used in jellies, jams, wines, and other delicious foods. Loved by both humans and wildlife, the chokecherry tree is often used as a windbreak, a source of food and shelter for native animals and birds, and to beautify an area. This plant is part of the Prunus genus, which is known for its flowering and fruiting plants.

The chokecherry can be grown into a tree or kept in containers and maintained as a smaller shrub. It's native to North America, and has been designated as the state fruit of North Dakota.

Botanical Name Prunus virginiana
Common Name Chokecherry, bitter-berry, wild cherry
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 30 ft. tall, 20 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Loamy, sandy, clay, moist
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 2-7, USA
Native Area North America
Toxicity Toxic to people and pets; fruit is non-toxic to people

Chokecherry Care

The chokecherry is very easy to grow in a wide span of situations and conditions. Naturally found in moist areas such as near bodies of water or low woodlands or prairies, chokecherries will thrive if planted near rivers or other readily accessible water sources. However, the chokecherry tree is also drought tolerant and can grow in areas without an abundance of water. These hardy plants are wind-resistant and cold-resistant.  

The berries can be harvested as early as July or August and into the fall. Keep in mind that a later harvest will mean sweeter berries. Chokecherry plants are prolific rhizome spreaders and are often used as a natural wall or barrier. Common pests and diseases include the prairie tent caterpillar, aphids, honey fungus, black knot, and canker fungus.  

Warning

The chokecherry is known to create thickets and can choke out other vegetation, making this plant invasive and weedy outside of its native growing zones. For example, Alaska has reported cases of invasive chokecherry harming native plants and wildlife. Be sure to check your local regulations before planting chokecherry.

Chokecherry branch with bright red clusters of cherries near rounded leaves closeup

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

Chokecherry shrub with drooping branches of rounded leaves and red cherry clusters

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) flowers

John Pennell / Getty Images

Light

Full sun exposure encourages more fruit production. However, the chokecherry is shade tolerant and can be grown in partially shaded areas.

Soil

Moist soil is ideal for chokecherries, but this plant is not picky about its soil conditions. The chokecherry can be found growing in loamy, sandy, and clay soil and can tolerate slightly acidic to slightly alkaline soil pH.

Water

The chokecherry tree is naturally found near water sources, so adequate watering is key to healthy, plentiful growth and fruit. However, some neglect will not damage this plant. The chokecherry is somewhat drought tolerant and can grow with minimal water. It is best to keep the soil moist, not wet. 

Temperature and Humidity

This plant is both cold and heat tolerant and can be grown in USDA zones 2 to 7. These hardy plants can be grown in a wide range of climates and conditions.

Fertilizer

Because chokecherry plants can thrive in a variety of soil conditions, they generally do not have specific fertilizing requirements. However if you want to improve soil conditions, you can add compost or add a well-balanced fertilizer in the spring to encourage healthy growth. To determine the best fertilizer, a soil test can be used to examine any nutrient deficiencies in your soil. 

Pruning Chokecherries

Proper pruning will ensure that the chokecherry does not become unproductive or unmanageable. It is best to prune in the late winter or early spring. The chokecherry can be pruned into a shrub or a tree.

To train a chokecherry into a tree, prune away branches near the center of the trunk to enable adequate airflow. Remove any low-growing branches.

If you're looking for a smaller, shrub-like plant, prune away one-third of the old growth. This encourages new, productive growth while maintaining the size and shape of the shrub.

Propagating Chokecherries

 Propagating chokecherries can easily be done by means of cuttings:

  1. Using clean, sharp snips, cut away a stem around 6 inches longs. Trim the cutting at a slanted angle. 
  2. Trim away the bottom set of leaves. 
  3. Dip the cut end into rooting hormone and place the cutting into moist potting soil or peat moss. 
  4. Keep the cutting in a bright, warm location until established. 
  5. Transplant to an outdoor location or container.

How to Grow Chokecherries from Seed

Growing a chokecherry from seed requires patience but is simple to accomplish:

  1. Chokecherry seeds must go through cold stratification before germinating. Place the seeds in the refrigerator for 3 months to achieve this.
  2. After this, plant the seeds in the spring in moist, rich soil. They can be planted either in a pot or in the garden. 
  3. Keep the soil consistently moist with regular watering.

Potting and Repotting Chokecherry

Chokecherries can easily be grown in containers. Because they are not particular about the type of soil used, average potting soil usually makes a good option. Add compost or fertilize periodically to give the potted plant the nutrients it needs.

Keep potted chokecherry plants in a sunny location with enough room to branch out and grow. Be sure to water regularly, as a potted plant does not have access to underground water sources. When the chokecherry fills the pot and has no room to grow, it is time to repot. Gently tip the chokecherry onto its side and loosen the roots from the pot. Place the plant in a slightly larger pot and fill it with fresh soil. Water generously.

Overwintering Chokecherry

Because the chokecherry is very cold tolerant, there is not much required to overwinter this plant. Adding a thick layer of mulch in the fall can help insulate the roots and protect them from the cold. For potted chokecherries, it is best to move the plant to an area that is somewhat protected from the cold, such as in a garage. You can also create an insulation layer around the pot by encircling the pot in chicken wire and filling in the open space with mulch or hay.