SALT LAKE CITY — Chokecherry trees are widely distributed and can be found in many of the major canyons or small foothill canyons along the Wasatch Front, especially those with small streams and moist canyon bottoms.
The common chokecherry is in bloom right now. Chokecherry trees can be found at 4,900 to 10,000 feet in elevation. In Utah, there are two known varieties that go by the common names western chokecherry and black chokecherry. Here's how you can identify them and enjoy them on your next spring hike.
Identifying chokecherry trees
Chokecherry trees normally would be described as shrubby; however, individual trees may grow as high as 25 feet. They are most commonly found in dense thickets.
The leaves are oblong or oval-shaped, dark green and have a sharp pointed tip. You can see that the leaf blade edge is finely toothed if you look close. The leaves are about 3 inches long. Its bark is smooth and brownish. On older, more mature trees the bark may be brownish-gray and look cracked or scaly.
The blooms are white and grow in clusters. The clusters are about 4 inches long. When you look at the actual flowers in each cluster, you will see that they are small — about a half-inch across. From a distance, they look similar to a white lilac bush bloom.
Value and use
The wood from the chokecherry tree is of little use. The branches are typically small and the trunk diameter rarely exceeds 6-8 inches. The leaves are good for deer and elk to browse, and the cherries are eaten by some species of birds. The leaves are poisonous to domestic livestock if eaten in any quantity, USU Extension notes.
Historically, the cherries were a food source for native peoples. Local native people would harvest the ripe cherries in the late summer and early fall. They would pulverize the dried cherries, pit and all, and mix it with crushed and ground-up meat to make jerky called pemmican. The dried pemmican stored well and was a great source of protein and vitamin C.
Early frontiersmen and settlers learned to make and eat pemmican too. The early settlers also used chokecherries to make syrup and jelly, and there are rumors of chokecherry wine. While the fresh cherries can be consumed, they are bitter and astringent. It is this bitterness that gives them their name. If you would like to try chokecherry syrup or jelly, it can be found for sale at some of the local gift shops in small towns around Utah. It is also possible to make your own by gathering the fruit when ripe and using traditional syrup and jelly recipes.
Because it stands out in the spring, the chokecherry tree can be used for children's discovery hikes. Prepare several clues that you can give the children. At the beginning of the hike, tell them you are trying to find a certain plant. In this instance, it can be the chokecherry tree.
Give them one clue and ask them to find the plant. This will keep them engaged and observant. Add a clue as you hike until they finally discover the plant. If they are totally unfamiliar with the plant, you will have to be creative in steering them in the right direction.
Once they find the plant, you have a great teaching opportunity. Tell them everything you know about the plant. The outdoors are a great classroom.
The blossoms don't last long, so get those hiking boots on and find a suitable hike!