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Chokecherries

PEI’s flowering trees and shrubs are putting on a spectacular display this year.  Right now, members of the Rose Family – Apples, Cherries, Hawthorns, and Mountain Ash – are stealing the show in hedgerows, field edges, and roadsides across the Island.  Among my favourites are the Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana).

Photo 1: Chokecherry flowers (Prunus virginiana) on PEI.

If you’ve experienced the famous ornamental Cherries of Japan – also planted in Canadian cities coast to coast – you may be underwhelmed by PEI’s native Cherry trees.  Those non-native hybrids were developed specifically for their beauty, while our local species rely on natural selection and prioritize function over form.  That said, our native Cherries have an unquestionable wild beauty with the added benefit of much tastier fruit.

Photo 2: Pin Cherry flowers (Prunus pensylvanica) on PEI.

PEI has two native Cherries and while both are edible, one is more practical to use than the other. Chokecherry (Photo 1) has flowers in long, finger-like groups called ‘racemes’. Once pollinated, each flower becomes a cherry and it’s easy to collect fruit by the handful.  Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica, Photo 2) flowered earlier and produces smaller, sparser floral groups (‘corymbs’) making picking any quantity of berries a tedious affair. Both species are sour but the dark, ripe Chokecherries can be enjoyed straight from the tree; I find Pin Cherries too sour and astringent to eat raw.

Photo 3: The differences between Chokecherry and Pin Cherry leaves, and between the Cherries and Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.).

Flowers and fruit aren’t the only differences between these species: leaves are distinctive as well. Cherries can be identified from other trees by the dots on their leaf stems, circled in Photo 3. These dots are glands that produce nectar, just like flowers do. Called ‘extrafloral nectaries’, they are amazing adaptations that help Cherry flowers and fruit in two ways.

 

First, they attract beneficial insects such as ants, lady beetles, and wasps that prey on pests. This not only helps more flowers survive to become fruit, it also gives the trees a way to entice their protectors with nectar even after the flowers are gone. Second, they distract some of the harmful insects from the flowers, again allowing more flowers to survive and become fruit.  How cool it that?

 

Cherries aren’t the only plants that use this approach, but the presence of those glands is a helpful way to separate them from somewhat-similar trees such as Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp., Photo 3). As that Photo also shows, leaf shape is different between our two Cherries, and between Cherries and Serviceberry.

 

I’m hoping the abundance of Cherry flowers right now will translate into lots of fruit come August and September.  Only the flesh of the fruit is edible (leaves, bark, and pits are all toxic), but it makes a wonderful jelly, juice, sauce, or syrup. Wild Cherry preserves are among the many great ways to enjoy the flavours of PEI untamed!

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