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Western Choke Cherry

Scientific Name:
Prunus virginiana
Native Name(s):
  1. Northern Paiute: do'˙-icabui (Kelly 1932); tooisabui (Couture et al. 1986); pokopisa (Couture et al. 1986); təshab (Fowler 1989); təshabui (Fowler 1989); toshəbui (Fowler 1989); toishapui (Fowler 1989); təshabui (Fowler 1989)
  2. Pit River: cuiwap (Garth 1953)
  3. Klamath: De-wich'-käsh (Coville 1897)


Prunus virginiana is a deciduous, thornless shrub or small tree that is usually less than 10 m. tall. The leaves range in size from 30 to 100 mm, have an elliptic to oblanceolate shape, and are finely serrate. The inflorescence is a raceme composed of 18 or more flowers that have five white, glabrous petals and very small (<2 mm) sepals. Its fruit is glabrous, has fleshy pulp, and is red to black. This species blooms from May to June. 

Identification Tips

Prunus virginiana is very similar to Prunus emarginata, but it is distinguished by its long, cylindrical racemes of 18 or more flowers.

Starch Granules

This species is starch deficient. No starch granules were observed from fruits or seeds of this species.


Prunus virginiana grows, often as a thicket, below 3000 m in elevation within rocky slopes and canyons associated with scrubland, oak/pine woodland, and conifer forests.


This species is widely distributed in the California Floristic Province, and Great Basin Province to Montana, Texas, and British Columbia, Canada. 


Prunus virginiana was eaten in multiple ways by the Northern Paiute, Pit River, and Klamath. The Northern Paiute would make it into tea and cakes (Kelly 1932) while the Pit River mashed the fruits into a paste (Garth 1953). The plant was used for different tools such as arrows or shields by the Northern Paiute and for baskets by the Pit River.

As food

Northern Paiute: “Fermented beverages and intoxicants were unknown.  A tea was produced by pouring hot water on the dried leaves of a species of Mentha, possibly M. arvensis L., and by boiling the stalks of wild rose and chokecherry, either separately or mixed.”  (Kelly 1932:103-104)

Northern Paiute: “Chokecherries (Prunus Demissa Dietr.) (do'˙-icabui) were eaten fresh or dried.  Preliminary o drying they were broken lightly with a stone, molded into cakes, and placed in the shade to harden.  Such dried cakes were ground to powder on the metate and then boiled.  Nowadays dried cherries are mixed with water and flour, possibly with seed meal in the old days.  A beverage was made by pouring hot water on the fruits and a tea was made from chokecherry stems.” (Kelly 1932:99)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the berries of toshəbui (chokecherry, Prunus demissa)] toshəbui, chokecherries, were gathered in September when they are ripe.  They may be mashed and made into round cakes 3 or 4 in. round and 1/4 in. thick.  They are eaten when dry.  They are not preserved for the winter.” (Fowler 1989:49-50)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the berries of toshəbui (chokecherry, Prunus demissa)] Chokecherries are gathered and mashed into pulp.  They are fashioned into little cakes and put in the sun and dried.  Cakes carried by people and used like chewing tobacco.” (Fowler 1989:50)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the berries of toshəbui (chokecherry, Prunus demissa)] Chokecherries (toishapui) were picked by hand by bending the limbs.  They were crushed with the fingers and the pulp goes through into a basket underneath.  Only the seeds are left in the upper basket.  They grow along the mountains.  Chokecherries were dried like the berries and cooked in the same way [see hupui].” (Fowler 1989:50)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the berries of toshəbui (chokecherry, Prunus demissa)] Chokecherries were eaten when ripe.  They were also dried and stored.  When the dried chokecherries were used, they were ground and boiled into a mush.” (Fowler 1989:50)

Pit River: “Chokecherries (cuiwap, Prunus demissa?) were put into a tule basket when ripe and mashed.  Water was added to form a paste, which was eaten without cooking.” (Garth 1953:139)

Klamath: “De-wich'-käsh.- The common chokecherry of the West, abundant in openings of the yellow-pine forests, particularly along streams.  The wood is known as de-wich'-ksäm.  The ripe fruit is an important article of food, being gathered in large quantities in September, and dried.” (Coville 1897:98)

As medicine

Northern Paiute: “For tuberculosis a tea is prepared from the leaves or bark…or sometimes from the boiled, dried root…To treat ordinary coughs and colds a tea can be made by boiling the peeled bark…or in the same community [Upper Reese River] some of the Indians boil the root shavings for the tea which is taken in quantities of less than a half-cupful several times daily until cured.  The dried and pulverized bark is sometimes smoked to secure relief from headaches or head colds...A drying powder for sores is prepared by pulverizing the dried bark strips...An interesting treatment for snowblindness was reported by members of two different tribes...The method consists simply in holding the head over a vessel of boiling bark in such a manner that the steam rises into the eyes.” (Train et al. 1957:82-83)

Pit River: “Chokecherry (cuiwap) leaves were effective as a poultice for curing cuts, sores, and bruises, including black eyes.  The green leaves were gathered, pounded in a mortar basket, and applied to the wound in the form of a paste held on with a cloth; a fresh application was made every morning and evening until the injury was healed.  Leaves might be dried and put away for future use.  The bark might be scraped from a limb, pounded up, and then boiled; the liquid was good for bathing wounds, causing them to heal more rapidly.” (Garth 1953:140)

As tools

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to arrows] Arrows were made of chokecherry, təshab (Prunus virginiana var. demissa)…The stick for an arrow was straightened by heating it in a fire and then holding it between the teeth.” (Fowler 1989:65)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to arrows] Chokecherry (təshabui) is often used to make arrows.  It was about as good as cane.” (Fowler 1989:68)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to arrows] Who'siabi are the feathers for the arrow.  When chokecherry and wild rose were used for arrows three feather were put on.  Arrows from these woods always stayed straight but willow would warp.” (Fowler 1989:68)

Northern Paiute: “A few warriors had round shield which were about 4 ft in diameter.  They were made of deer skin and put around a frame of chokecherry wood (a hard wood) and hard willows.” (Fowler 1989:71)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to warfare] A few warriors had rough shields which were about four feet in diameter.  They were made of deer skin and put around a frame of chokecherry wood and hard willows.  Only a few had these shields.” (Fowler 1989:137)

Pit River: “[In regards to close twined ware] The top of the basket was completed by adding a rim of chokecherry, willow, or, in modern times, a length of wire, the rim being then wrapped with redbud.” (Garth 1953:149)

Pit River: “The basketry hopper (knohwa) was made like the decorative baskets, but of more sturdy materials…Three pine-root wefts were twined around the bases of willow warps to make a circle about four inches in diameter.  Then successive courses of twining were added in gradually widening circles as in the burden basket.  On a hopper basket owned by BW two reinforcing rods of chokecherry, held in place by the twining which went round them, had been put around the outside of the base...About three inches from the base the three-strand twining was discontinued, and the white grass overlay was added in its place over the two-strand twining which remained.  The top of the hopper was finished with a heavy rod of second growth chokecherry bound on with redbud bark.  The willows at the base below the twining had been broken off so that the article assumed the shaped of a truncated cone.” (Garth 1953:149)


Northern Paiute: “[In regards to cradles] The arch of the figured specimen is willow and the base choke-cherry.” (Kelly 1932:134)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the drum] The frame was chokecherry, although juniper is more usual.” (Kelly 1932:147)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to shamanism and a prophecy] Then he said, "Those people will bring an animal and will make chokecherries, as big as a fist, grow in this country."  The doctor meant the horse and the apple.  We had a strong belief in this doctor (SW).” (Kelly 1932:189)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to the tale "Coyote and Bear"] Coyote was hunting that Bear…He knew where Bear went for chokecherries.  There was a spring there with lots of willows.  Bear went for a drink and went under those willows.” (Kelly 1938:421)

Northern Paiute: “[In regards to manos and metates] These implements also are used by these women for the processing of chokecherries in the fall.” (Couture et al. 1986:157)

Northern Paiute: “A number of wild plant species are tolerated, encouraged, or even transplanted to yards and fields on the reservation.  Species transplanted include Indian plum, chokecherry, golden currant, squaw currant, and wild rose.” (Couture et al. 1986:157)

Northern Paiute: “In early fall, families collected ponderosa pine nuts and cambium in the forests to the north.  Many went to Crow Camp Hills south of present-day Buchanan to pick chokecherries.” (Couture et al. 1986:1954)

Northern Paiute: “Tudəwkidənu was the small tray used to seed chokecherries.” (Fowler 1989:84-85)

Pit River: “[In regards to a myth describing Fox's attempt to get rid of Coyote] Fox made choke cherries and wild plums along the path so that Coyote would eat and forget. Coyote ate these berries and decided to kill Fox. Then Fox made a lot of gooseberries around the sweathouse.” (Park 1986:50)


Distribution Map: