Botanical Rambles

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Washington’s Cherries

Chokecherry fruits (Prunus virginiana) Photo: National Park Service

When I was growing up, February had a lot going for it, with three holidays. Lincoln's birthday (February 12th—studying by firelight; Honest Abe; top hats), Valentine's Day (February 14th—giving, and hopefully receiving, Valentine cards; candy hearts; a stomach ache by nightfall), and Washington's birthday (February 22nd—noble profile; wooden teeth; cherry pie). Two days off, with romance in between!

What I most remember learning about George Washington in elementary school was that he chopped down his father's cherry tree. When confronted with his misdeed, the future president responded, "I cannot tell a lie." Sadly, this story itself turns out to have been fabricated by Mason Locke Weems, an early 19th-century biographer of George.

​Prunus growing wild in Washington 

But let us now consider Washington State's cherries. Prunus is a delicious genus, encompassing almonds, apricots, cherries, peaches, and plums. The Washington Flora Checklist shows 14 Prunus species and varieties, four of which are considered native. The other 10 have escaped cultivation somewhere in the state.

​Common name
Prunus americana Marsh.
​American plum, wild plum
Prunus avium (L.) L.
​sweet cherry
Prunus cerasifera Ehrh.
​cherry plum
Prunus cerasus L
​sour cherry
Prunus domestica L.
​cultivated plum
Prunus dulcis (P. Mill.) D.A. Webber
Prunus emarginata (Douglas) Eaton
​bitter cherry
Prunus laurocerasus L.
​cherry-laurel, laurel cherry
Prunus mahaleb L.
​perfumed cherry, mahaleb cherry
Prunus padus L.
​European bird cherry
Prunus x pugetensis A. L. Jacobson & P. F. Zika [Madrono 54: 74-85. 2007.]
​Puget Sound cherry
Prunus spinosa L.
Prunus virginiana L. var. demissa (Nutt.) Torr.
​common chokecherry
Prunus virginiana L. var. melanocarpa (A. Nels.) Sarg.
​white chokecherry, western chokecherry
Bittercherry inflorescence (Prunus emarginata) Photo: Ben Legler

Bitter Cherry

Bittercherry (Prunus emarginata) flowers April through June, as its leaves come out, on both sides of the Cascades. Shrubby or a tree, it grows from sea level up through the foothills, most often in moist sites. More observant experts tell me its bark is reddish-purple, but I don't think I've ever noticed.

Its classic white cherry blossoms (5 petals, many stamens) grow in a flat-topped grouping, or inflorescence, though sometimes there are just a few flowers in the bunch. This is quite different from our other common native Prunus.

The little cherries, or drupes (single-seeded berries), are red to almost black in some cases. And guess what? They're bitter, at least to us. But many birds, along with squirrels, foxes, black bears, coyotes, chipmunks and raccoons don't seem to mind.

Chokecherry inflorescence (Prunus virginiana) Photo: Ben Legler


Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) blooms a little later, May through early July. Also a tree or a shrub and growing on both sides of the Cascades, it seems to tolerate somewhat drier sites, with a bark that is purplish-gray. An apparent difference is the shape of the inflorescence. In chokecherry, the groups of many flowers are at the ends of the stems, long, and often hang down.

The cherries color up red to purple or black, and Hitchcock says they are "sweet but astringent." Perhaps the astringency is where the choking comes in.

Washington has two varieties of chokecherry. Interestingly, common chokecherry (P. virginiana var. demissa) has been less commonly collected than white or western chokecherry (P. virginiana var. melanocarpa).

Common chokecherry is represented by 25 specimens at the University of Washington Herbarium at the Burke Museum, and by 229 records in the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria. White or western chokecherry has 71 records at the UW and 949 in the consortium. Common names so often lead one astray!

Puget Sound cherry

You may be surprised to hear that "Puget Sound cherry" is not, in fact, Prunus laurocerasus, or cherry laurel. Cherry laurel is a ubiquitous, and some would say iniquitous, evergreen shrub that's a popular hedging plant. And it has spread prolifically, becoming a bane to our lowland forests, along with ivy (Hedera helix) and holly (Ilex aquifolium).

Puget Sound cherry (Prunus ×pugetensis) is actually a naturally occurring hybrid, apparently a cross between the introduced sweet cherry (P. avium) and our native bittercherry. Its leaves and flowers are intermediate between the two. Like that classic hybrid, the mule, it is mostly sterile. Although Puget Sound cherry blooms, it doesn't usually produce fruit.

If George Washington had cut down a newly planted cherry tree, it's not likely it was one of our native Prunus taxa. More likely a sweet cherry (P. avium) or sour cherry (P. cerasus). We still have several months to go before any cherries (sweet, sour, bitter, or choke) are ripe.

And—I cannot tell a lie—I wish both Lincoln's birthday and Washington's birthday were still national holidays.

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