Staff October 31, 2016

Prunus virginiana
Photo: iStock

Every gardener and landscaper has a favorite tree and shrub. My grandfather, Augusto Palazzi, the founder of our 95-year-old company, loved Japanese red maples as his favorite tree and Betty Prior roses (anybody remember them?) as his shrub of choice. My father, Lou Palazzi Sr., had all viburnums, with Goldfinger potentillas as a close second, as his favorite shrubs and Canadian red cherries as his cherished trees. I tend to favor Golden Raindrops crabs and Viburnum opulus as my two choices, but the new colorful panicle hydrangeas like Fire and Ice have been pressuring my heart and psyche as of late.

My father had a long affection for Prunus virginiana, alias Canadian red cherry or chokecherry. He loved the fact that it was native, fast growing, had many colors and required little care once established. The tree’s ability to leaf out lime green, bloom white with a wonderful scent, then change in late May to purple makes this tree unique. It also has bright green new growth against the purple after a heavy summer rain, and the fall color is a very strong, bright red. The fruit is not showy or desirable and is extremely sour – which is purportedly why early settlers called it chokecherry, since its extreme sour taste made you choke.

P. virginiana has a very rapid growth rate compared to other ornamental trees. It is much faster than crabs or dogwoods and about one third quicker than all other cherries, especially the Japanese varieties. Its rate is akin to that of Bradford pear, but without the worries of a fast growth equaling splitting in high winds.

Name: Prunus virginiana

Common name: Canadian red cherry, chokecherry

Hardiness: Zones 2 to 7

Mature height: 20 to 30 feet

Mature spread: 15 to 20 feet

Classification: Flowering tree

Landscape use: Hedge; shrub borders; natural or native gardens Ornamental characteristics: Showy and fragrant white blooms in spring; clusters of attractive, rich red, pea-sized fruits ripen to dark purple in late summer; strong, red fall color

The single-stem varieties do have some drawbacks, however. They are somewhat more prone to black knot, scale and other pests, as well as bark splitting characteristic of dark-barked trees. It can also have a very wild look if left unpruned with a single stem. However, it has far more positive characteristics that far outweigh the negatives, especially if it is multistem.

The black knot problem can be controlled by the application of a labeled fungicide in early spring when the first leaves appear. Scale is also handled by using horticultural oil applied at the same time. Aphids and Japanese beetles also attack the tree but cause little damage and can be held at bay by pesticides.

In cooperation with Joe and Tony Cerbo of Cerbo’s nurseries in New Jersey, we have developed an approach using cultural techniques to make this a very usable tree. In production, the Cerbos prune both single stem and multistem (three main) heavily to encourage and develop full tops. After planting, we have found the following two years of continued pruning does really make a difference not only in having full heads, but in disease and insect resistance and bark splitting.

Photo: Louis Palazzi

These multistem trees provide an excellent alternative to the vastly overused white birch, Kousa dogwoods, shadbush, crapes, Japanese red maples and other mutistems. Their numerous new suckers are easily pruned off, and the dark bark is an added feature. Tony Cerbo says, “Chokecherries have a faster growth habit, less disease and insect problems, and far superior purple color compared to all types of plums.”

Perhaps these trees may find a greater use replacing the much overused crabs, Japanese cherries, and especially the ever-present, now invasive Callery pears found everywhere. Maybe then it will no longer be the best tree nobody plants.

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