Gardeners and landscapers across Alaska prize chokecherry trees (a.k.a. mayday or European bird cherry) for their showy blooms, clusters of pea-sized cherries, and striking foliage. Plus, they’re hard to kill. What’s not to love? They seem like the perfect plant to liven up any Alaskan garden.
But don’t be fooled – these beauties are a problem.
Chokecherry trees in alaska
You’ll find two species of these invasive trees in Alaska: Prunus padus, commonly known as European bird cherry or mayday, and Prunus virginiana, or chokecherry. Prunus virginiana is native to parts of the lower 48, while Prunus padus hails from Europe. For the sake of simplicity, the two species are often collectively referred to by their genus name, Prunus, or the catch-all common name, chokecherry.
Introduced to Alaska in the 1950s as a hardy (they can tolerate temperatures down to -33 degrees Fahrenheit!) ornamental, chokecherry trees quickly became a popular landscape choice. From Fairbanks to Southeast, Anchorage and the Mat-Su, and across the Kenai Peninsula, people eagerly bought up the trees, planted them in their yards, and (totally unaware of the future consequences) sat back to watch them grow. And grow, they did.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the beloved trees to escape cultivation and move into intact ecosystems, where they quickly changed everything.
what’s the problem with chokecherry trees in Alaska?
Across the state, chokecherry represents one of the most problematic and harmful invasive plants. They crowd out native plants and take over forest and riparian habitats, reduce biodiversity, spread along salmon streams where they alter the availability of prey for juvenile salmon, can be toxic to moose, and more.
Once established (in the wild or in our yards), chokecherry trees are difficult to remove. They reproduce and spread far and wide by seeds – birds eat the cherries and deposit the seeds elsewhere, often miles from the “mother” tree. They resprout from stumps, branches, and roots, and cutting the trees back does nothing but stimulate growth. Many a landowner has been surprised (and frustrated) by the hundreds of sprouts that popped up in their yard after cutting down a chokecherry tree. Of course, chokecherries spread by this same vigorous growth pattern outside our manicured yards.
how does the kp-cisma help with the chokecherry problem in Alaska?
Through many collaborative projects, the KP-CISMA works across the peninsula to reduce the spread of invasive chokecherry trees. We expand our efforts each year, building partnerships and engaging with new audiences and communities. Here are a few chokecherry projects we’re working on in 2022:
Calvin and Coyle chokecherry removal and community art project
In May, community volunteers, Homer Soil and Water Conservation District (HSWCD), Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, and Homer Council on the Arts teamed up to manually remove chokecherry trees along the Calvin and Coyle trail in Homer. The coolest part? The wood from these trees is slated to become the centerpiece of an art event where participants will turn the once-troublesome trees into works of art.
City of Homer chokecherry removal and replacement
Homer SWCD and the City of Homer have collaborated to remove and replace chokecherry trees on city properties. Funded by the City of Homer, this project not only helps protect ecosystems and wildlife but also ensures Homer’s public spaces remain enjoyable for all. Perhaps most importantly, it serves as a model for other communities and provides a platform for community engagement around broader invasive species topics.
Landowner assistance for chokecherry removal
Through funding from the Alaska Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service, the KP-CISMA assists landowners on the southern and central peninsula with the removal of chokecherry trees on their property. If you have a chokecherry tree you’d like to get rid of, get in touch! We would love to chat with you about removal options (it can be tricky) and how we might be able to help you. We hope to expand this program to other communities in the coming years.
an ongoing, collaborative effort
Let’s be real – removing every single chokecherry tree from the Kenai Peninsula isn’t a reasonable goal. The trees are too established in some of the peninsula’s more populated communities, making eradication impossible. But, in some smaller communities, such as Cooper Landing, Hope, and Seward/Moose Pass, we’re optimistic that we still have a chance to eradicate the trees – if we act quickly.
Prevention (i.e., not planting the trees in the first place) is always best and remains important everywhere. After prevention, early detection and rapid response (EDRR) is the most efficient and cost-effective way to deal with chokecherries or any invasive species.
As long as chokecherry trees persist on the peninsula, we’ll continue to think up creative ways to protect our native ecosystems from the detrimental impacts of these pretty but problematic plants.
how you can help
- Ask nurseries to stop selling chokecherry trees. While the Municipality of Anchorage has banned the sale of chokecherries, they are still widely available for purchase on the Kenai Peninsula.
- Consider alternatives like crab apple, saskatoon (serviceberry), Ussurian pear, or lilacs.
- Spread the word! Share this blog post, talk to your neighbors, go to your city council – many people aren’t aware that chokecherry trees are invasive.
- Remove chokecherry trees from your property. It may seem obvious, but many people are reluctant to take this step. Read up on the options so you can make an informed decision.
For more information about chokecherry trees or any of our chokecherry projects, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org