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Chokecherry: Alaska’s Pretty Problem Plant

by | July 11, 2022

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.

Profuse sprays of cream-colored flowers make chokecherry trees easy to spot in the spring. Over the summer, flowers develop into clusters of small cherries, deep red to purple in color. Photo credit: Armin S Kowalski, CC BY-SA 2.0 license, via Flickr

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.

A rustic house surrounded by a hayfield sits overlooking the ocean. Two people look at a large tree growing next to the house.
For decades, people have planted chokecherry trees in yards, parks, and along trails in Alaska. They can take the form of a dense shrub or tree, older trees growing to heights of 9 meters or more. Photo by Casey Greenstein/Homer SWCD

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.

A man wearing work clothes and gloves hauls a large tree branch. A chainsaw sits nearby.
Chokecherry trees resprout from stumps, roots, and branches and form unruly thickets of vegetation wherever they grow. Homer SWCD photo

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.

A group of people pose by a large tree branch.
Removing chokecherry trees from along the Calvin and Coyle trail in Homer reduces the number of cherries that can spread to the surrounding critical habitat area, an important urban refuge for moose and migratory birds. Photo by Jen Chauvet/Homer SWCD

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.

A sign is posted in a park. The sign contains the text, "tree replacement in progress"
Removing and replacing chokecherry trees on city properties in Homer serves as an opportunity to educate the public about the harmful impacts of chokecherry trees and the benefits of planting native or non-invasive plants instead. Photo by Jen Chauvet/HSWCD

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.

Three people stand under a large tree that is being cut down. One person uses a chainsaw to cut a large branch.
Depending on a number of factors, like the tree’s size and location and the landowner’s goal, chokecherry trees can be removed by manual (e.g., pulling) or mechanical (e.g., digging) means or with a small amount of targeted herbicide. The entire root system must be removed or killed to prevent the tree from resprouting. Photo by Casey Greenstein/Homer SWCD

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.

Three people wearing raingear stand in thick vegetation and look at a tree while taking nots on a smartphone and clipboard.
Removing and preventing the spread of invasive chokecherry trees requires collaboration and is ultimately about stewardship. In 2021, the Kenai Watershed Forum removed several trees from the banks of the Kenai River, an important habitat for salmon and a popular recreation area. Photo by Maura Shumacher/KWF

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 kenaipeninsula.invasives@gmail.com

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